Thursday, February 22, 2018
Politics

Blind trusts won't remove conflicts of interests, former top ethics official says

TALLAHASSEE — Tucked into a bill hailed by Senate leaders as the "most sweeping ethics reform" in decades is a provision that could shield elected officials from disclosing conflicts of interest or questionable assets.

Under SB 2, which passed the Senate on the first day of the legislative session, any public official who wants to avoid disclosing embarrassing financial information on their financial disclosure forms could create a blind trust to hold their assets.

"This really would be a wolf in sheep's clothing,'' said Phil Claypool, the former director of the Florida Commission on Ethics who retired last year. "The whole idea is to protect both the public official and the public from conflicts of interest" but under the Senate bill "you've just got room for all kinds of mischief.''

The Senate bill — for the first time in Florida — provides for "blind trusts" for elected officials and was promoted as a way to help public officials "avoid potential conflicts of interest" by allowing them to hand off responsibility for investing their assets to a trustee. The idea is that an elected official would be "blind" to what he owned because the trustee would be banned from disclosing how the assets are invested.

The measure is part of a larger ethics reform package that includes new laws that would force public officials to disclose conflicts and face new restrictions on who they can work for while in office or when they retire from office.

But Claypool believes that the Senate bill essentially creates a "cloak of invisibility" in which elected officials simply "pay a lawyer to draw up a trust" and hide behind it.

"Instead of protecting the public from conflicts of interest … the proposed law would allow officials to use their positions for private gain while 'blinding' the public to what's going on," he wrote in an analysis for Integrity Florida, the ethics watchdog group.

By contrast, the ethics commission studied several other states and recommended that any blind trust provision be accompanied by safeguards to protect the public. Among them: Require the public official to disclose the assets that go into the blind trust so that people know what is being concealed; allow only assets that are readily bought or sold, to avoid an asset sitting in a blind trust that the public official knows is there because it can't easily be sold.

A similar ethics bill moving through the House, HB 7131, also would allow for "blind trusts" for elected officials, but it also adopts many of the safeguards recommended by the Ethics Commission.

"The House version is a major improvement over what the Senate did,'' Claypool said.

Senate President Don Gaetz, key champion of the Senate's ethics package, supports the House version of the ethics bill, said Katie Betta, Gaetz spokeswoman on Monday.

But the House and Senate both fall short in another area that, Claypool said, "sets the clock back on financial disclosure,'' he said.

Under both bills, public officials would have 30 days to amend their financial disclosure forms while in office and 60 days after leaving office, even if a citizen has filed a complaint alleging that the form is incorrect.

Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has proposed 12 amendments to the House version to close the so-called "do-over" loophole in the financial disclosure bill and impose additional safeguards on the use of blind trusts.

He said it may not be easy to persuade his colleagues to agree.

"If you're going to have an ethics bill, it should be one that's going to be as tough as possible on those that are public servants, especially those that are elected,'' he said. "Otherwise, why bother doing one?"

Comments
Romano: Welcome to Florida, a state more afraid of conversation than guns

Romano: Welcome to Florida, a state more afraid of conversation than guns

Gun advocates are absolutely right about this:A ban on assault weapons will not end school shootings.How do we know?Because there was a federal ban on assault weapons for 10 years, and mass killings persisted. That’s because a ban deals only with fut...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Focused on Cuba’s future, Rep. Castor skips meeting with Raul Castro

Focused on Cuba’s future, Rep. Castor skips meeting with Raul Castro

TAMPA — One highlight of a congressional delegation’s visit to Cuba this week was an impromptu meeting with President Raul Castro.But not for U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor.The Tampa Democrat joined five other Democrats on the trip, in part to investigate th...
Published: 02/21/18
Melania Trump’s parents are legal permanent residents, raising questions on ‘chain migration’

Melania Trump’s parents are legal permanent residents, raising questions on ‘chain migration’

The parents of first lady Melania Trump have become legal permanent residents of the United States and are close to obtaining their citizenship, according to people familiar with their status, but their attorney declined to say how or when the couple...
Published: 02/21/18
Alex Trebek will moderate a Republican debate in the Pennsylvania governor’s race

Alex Trebek will moderate a Republican debate in the Pennsylvania governor’s race

We’ll take "surprising side gigs" for $1,000! "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek will moderate a debate among Republican hopefuls vying for the Pennsylvania gubernatorial nomination.The longtime game show star will be questioning candidates at an Oct. 1 for...
Published: 02/21/18
Spring Hill candidate for Congress: ‘I care about this community — I will scream that from the rafters’

Spring Hill candidate for Congress: ‘I care about this community — I will scream that from the rafters’

SPRING HILL — A Hernando County woman new to the political arena has filed as the fifth Democrat to run against longtime Florida lawmaker U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster for his spot in the U.S. House of Representatives.Dana Cottrell, 49, has lived in Sprin...
Published: 02/20/18
Updated: 02/21/18
St. Petersburg regatta to Havana again buffeted by politics

St. Petersburg regatta to Havana again buffeted by politics

The 2017 St. Petersburg-Habana Yacht Race was celebrated as more than a competitive regatta to Cuba’s capital city of Havana.The relaunch of the maritime competition canceled since 1959 was hailed as a reflection of the detente started under former P...
Published: 02/20/18
Special counsel files new charge in Russia probe

Special counsel files new charge in Russia probe

WASHINGTON — The special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election charged an attorney Tuesday with lying to federal investigators about his interactions with a former Trump campaign official. A charging document filed in federa...
Published: 02/20/18
Man featured on ‘Trump Dating’ site has child sex conviction

Man featured on ‘Trump Dating’ site has child sex conviction

GREENSBORO, N.C. — A North Carolina man with a felony conviction for indecent liberties with a child was one-half of the poster couple for a new "Trump Dating" website.News outlets reported Monday that visitors to the dating site geared toward suppor...
Published: 02/20/18
Ex-workers at Russian ‘troll factory’ trust U.S. indictment

Ex-workers at Russian ‘troll factory’ trust U.S. indictment

Associated PressST. PETERSBURG, Russia — While Russian officials scoff at a U.S. indictment charging 13 Russians with meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, several people who worked at the same St. Petersburg, Russia, "troll factory" say t...
Published: 02/19/18
Trump offers support for limited effort on background checks

Trump offers support for limited effort on background checks

Associated PressWEST PALM BEACH — From the confines of his Mar-a-Lago golf club, President Donald Trump offered support Monday for a limited strengthening of federal background checks on gun purchases while staying largely mum in the past few days ab...
Published: 02/19/18