TALLAHASSEE — Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott said Wednesday he will release his income tax returns and stow away millions of his investments in a blind trust in response to a call from Democratic opponent Alex Sink to become more transparent.
The announcement came the same day Scott agreed to two statewide debates and a CNN-Time magazine poll showed Sink ahead of Scott by 7 points.
Sink issued the tax return challenge after agreeing to post five years of her individual tax returns and those of her husband, Bill McBride, on her campaign's website sometime next week. She blasted Scott, who has promised for months to release his returns, for failing to want to give voters a true accounting of his financial dealings.
"He needs to understand how Florida works — governors have always submitted and disclosed their tax returns," she said. "This is the Sunshine State."
Sink's 2009 tax returns show that she has a net worth of $9.2 million, including $5 million in investments she holds in a blind trust.
Sink, the former head of Bank of America in Florida, said she has attempted to avoid any conflict between her office and her investments by keeping her assets in an account she has not been able to control or review since being elected Florida's chief financial officer in 2006.
Scott, the former chief executive of the Columbia/HCA health care chain, has reported a net worth of $218 million and spent more than $50 million to defeat Attorney General Bill McCollum in the primary. McCollum first urged Scott to release his tax returns on June 17.
"Our intention has always been to release them, and we will release them shortly," said Scott campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Baker.
Scott filed a financial disclosure form in June when he filed to run for governor, but the joint tax returns filed by Scott and his wife were delayed, Baker said, because ''Bill McCollum didn't release his, and it got lost in the day-to-day issues of the campaign."
Baker said Scott has also agreed to put all his investments in a blind trust. Under Florida law, blind trusts are not regulated and there are no rules guaranteeing that the financial transactions made by the trustees are independent of an officeholder's public duties.
Sink said she doesn't know what assets are included in her blind trust and defended her use of them. "That's the point of blind trusts — to assure that the governor or any Cabinet member — not have any conflicts," she said.
Sink also called on Scott to disclose how he's going to guarantee voters that there will be no conflicts with Solantic, a Florida-based health care chain of walk-in clinics, which he started and still owns.
"That will lead to all kinds of questions when it comes to insurance matters and insurance payments," Sink said. "He needs to address how he plans to handle that. When he's governor, there are no longer private business affairs."
Baker said Scott has not addressed how he will handle any regulatory conflicts that might emerge from his ownership of Solantic or three other companies that do business in Florida. The others are SSM Entertainment, a Tennessee company that runs bowling alleys; Drives, a company that makes car chassis; and Xfone, a telecommunications company.
In another development Wednesday, Scott agreed with Sink to conduct two statewide debates in October, short of the five Sink has called for.
The candidates have both agreed to accept an invitation for a debate sponsored by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association to be held Oct. 20 at Nova Southeastern University in Davie. Scott stood up the group this year when he refused to participate in a primary debate that was held with only McCollum.
Scott also agreed to an Oct. 25 University of South Florida debate sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and CNN. The host will be CNN anchor John King. Sink stopped short of committing to that one unless Scott agrees to five statewide debates.
Sink scolded Scott for agreeing to meet so late in the election cycle, after early voting starts Oct. 18.
"We ought to be doing more debates earlier in the process while people are making up their minds who they are voting for," she said.
A poll released Wednesday by CNN and Time magazine showed Sink with a 7-point lead over Scott among registered voters, including those leaning toward one candidate but remaining uncertain.
Sink's 49 percent to 42 percent lead is built with a significant advantage among independent and moderate voters.
The poll includes an unusually low number of undecided voters — 3 percent — and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Times/Herald staff writer John Frank contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.