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Judge Conducts “Socratic Dialogue’ Over Blind Trusts Lawsuit

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(Source: AP)

(Source: AP)

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A Leon County judge on Thursday questioned attorneys on both sides of a case challenging a 2013 law that allows Florida elected officials to use so-called “blind trusts” to shield their financial assets.

Jim Apthorp, former chief of staff to the late Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew, filed the lawsuit last month, contending that the use of blind trusts violates disclosure requirements under the state’s Sunshine Amendment. Apthorp filed the original lawsuit in the Florida Supreme Court, asking the justices to ban Secretary of State Ken Detzner from accepting the qualifying papers of any candidate using a blind trust.

Apthorp had hoped the high court would rule in time to affect candidates running this year, but the justices referred the case to the lower court, where Circuit Court Judge James Cooper held a hearing for Thursday — nearly at the end of the qualifying period for the 2014 election, which wraps up Friday.

The case has political implications Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for re-election, was the only elected official using a blind trust.

Blind trusts do not offer detailed public disclosure of holdings, only the total dollar amount of an official’s net worth. But supporters say they avoid potential conflicts of interest between officials’ public duties and their financial interests.

Cooper did not rule on the case Thursday, but he asked Solicitor General Allen Winsor, who represented Detzner, and Apthorp’s attorney, Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, to send him proposed orders next week.

The judge also quizzed attorneys about the use of blind trusts.

“I don’t see how you can have a conflict of interest if you don’t know what you own,” he said. “I’m not getting that part.”

Additionally, Cooper wanted to know who had the “standing” — the legal basis — to bring the lawsuit, because Winsor had argued in court documents that Apthorp did not.

“Plaintiff has not set forth any ‘substantial, present interest in the relief sought,’ … nor has he identified any personal privilege dependent on the outcome or personal right to the desired declaration that sets him apart from any other citizen wanting this law — or any other law — declared invalid,” Winsor wrote in a June 17 filing.

D’Alemberte, a former Democratic lawmaker who helped to pass the Sunshine Amendment in 1976, said the amendment gave “citizens and taxpayers” standing in the case.

“If I have a right to free speech, and a statute is passed that infringes on my right to free speech, I have standing,” he said.

Cooper noted that the Legislature had unanimously passed the 2013 law allowing the use of blind trusts.

“Didn’t the citizens do that through the Legislature?” he asked.

But D’Alemberte argued that the terms of the Sunshine Amendment rendered the 2013 law unconstitutional.

“The purpose of having full disclosure is so the citizen can make the judgment,” he said.

At the end of the hearing, which lasted two and a half hours, Cooper said he was still unclear on the issue of who had standing in the case.

“I’m wrestling with that issue, but I’m a long way from deciding,” the judge said.

D’Alemberte, meeting with reporters after the hearing, agreed that the case could hinge on the question.

“That’s the one that obviously troubles the judge, so it’s got to trouble us as well,” he said. “But if not Jim Apthorp, who?”

On Monday, Scott released his financial records and ended a blind trust he had formed in 2011. He publicly listed his investments, disclosed his net worth as $132.7 million, and placed his investments into a new blind trust.

“I think it’s incumbent for a governor to have their assets in a blind trust,” Scott said in a telephone interview on Monday. “By not knowing what assets, and having an outside professional run those assets, you don’t have either the appearance or the conflict of interest by knowing what is in the blind trust.”

This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.

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