By Mary Ellen Klas
Gov. Rick Scott has failed to report more than $200 million in assets on his state financial disclosure form in violation of the Florida Constitution, Democratic attorney general candidate George Sheldon alleged in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
Sheldon, a former deputy attorney general under Bob Butterworth, is running against Republican Pam Bondi. His lawsuit, filed in Leon County just weeks before Election Day, accuses the governor of relying on a "web of complex financial arrangements" to shift investments and hide his "financial interests from public view."
Sheldon is asking a judge to order Scott, Florida's wealthiest governor, to "immediately and accurately disclose all assets he owns or controls," and to declare the governor's "blind trust" in violation of the blind trust law he signed.
"The lawsuit asks the court to remove the blindfold that Rick Scott has put on the people of Florida so that they cannot see what is going on with his personal assets,'' Sheldon said during a press conference. "The governor likes to talk about how much he has disclosed. The lawsuit is about how much he has not disclosed."
The Florida Constitution requires elected officials every year to make a "full and public disclosure" of their assets and liabilities "in excess of $1,000" so that the public can monitor any potential conflicts of interest.
Scott was asked about the lawsuit while campaigning in Miami and defended his disclosure. He blamed the controversy on Charlie Crist who, unlike Scott, has released his tax returns for 2013, but has not released his wife's returns, who files separately. Scott and his wife have released their joint tax returns for 2010, 2011 and 2012.
"This is just pure Charlie Crist,'' Scott said. "That's what he does; he just attacks people."
Scott said he put his assets in a blind trust, as was done by former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and former Gov. Jeb Bush, and also released his tax returns. But, unlike Sink and Bush's reports, Scott's 2014 blind trust did not disclose the value of the individual assets listed.
The complaint follows a Herald/Times story published last weekend that raised questions about the completeness of the governor's financial disclosure in light of the blind trust he created, numerous trust accounts he has established, and the differences in which he reports his finances to the federal government and the public.
The Herald/Times and the investigative Broward Bulldog site have previously reported that the governor's investments in companies that have benefited from his policies have raised questions about the overlapping nature of his role as private investor and public servant.
Earlier this week, Scott's campaign manager Melissa Sellers defended the governor. In a prepared statement, she said the governor is "in full compliance with both federal and state reporting requirements, which are different."
Sheldon disagrees. "Rick Scott has under-reported his financial interests; the assets that he owns and controls,'' he states in the 20-page complaint. "He reports one set of facts to the State of Florida and another set of facts to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Both cannot be true.''
Sheldon claims that Scott used more than $300 million in proceeds from his severance package from Columbia/HCA to form Richard L. Scott Investments. Scott is the former CEO of Columbia/HCA, a national hospital chain.
Scott then created "a complex web of investment vehicles which appears to include at least six trusts, numerous partnerships, investment funds and accounts" that are worth "at least $340 million," the lawsuit claims.
Scott reported on his 2014 financial disclosure report that his net worth was closer to $132.7 million.
"Funds appear to be moved seamlessly between the entities and they are all financial interests of the Defendant Scott," the complaint states. "Because he does not include these entities on his financial disclosure, they enable Scott to hide some of his assets and financial interests from public view."
In her statement on Tuesday, Sellers said the governor has gone "above and beyond what the law requires" by disclosing the assets of his blind trust and releasing his tax returns for 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Unlike his campaign opponent, Democrat Charlie Crist, Scott has not released his 2013 tax return and has not committed to do so.
The case is being handled pro bono by Tallahassee attorney Don Hinkle, a Crist campaign contributor.
It it is the second lawsuit filed to force the governor to provide Floridians a more complete picture of his personal wealth. Jim Apthorp, a longtime aide to former Gov. Reubin Askew, has sued to force Scott to adhere to the letter of a Florida constitutional requirement that elected officials make a "full and public disclosure." A judge sided with Scott, but Apthorp has filed an appeal.
Sheldon's suit argues that a lawsuit is necessary because the Florida Ethics Commission, which oversees the financial disclosure law, does not have the power to compel the governor to file a complete return, only to fine him after the fact. By contrast, he notes, failure to accurately report financial information to the federal SEC or IRS could result in jail time.
"The policing of ethics in the state has no teeth,'' he said. Miami Herald reporter Joey Flechas contributed to this report.
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