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Judge hears arguments for, against blind trust law used by Gov. Scott

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's administration urged a judge on Thursday to throw out a lawsuit attacking the law that allows elected officials to place assets in blind trusts.

The state demanded dismissal on procedural grounds, arguing that plaintiff Jim Apthorp lacked legal standing, or justification to bring his "abstract" claim to the courthouse.

Apthorp was chief of staff to the late Gov. Reubin Askew, who in 1976 spearheaded passage of the first voter-approved change to Florida's Constitution.

The "Sunshine Amendment" requires elected officials to make a "full and public disclosure" of their finances every year as a safeguard against conflicts of interest.

Blind trusts allow officials to put assets under the control of a trustee who makes investment decisions without the official's knowledge. The Legislature passed a law last year setting up standards for blind trusts, and to date, Scott is the only official to take advantage of the law.

Apthorp's lawyer, Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a former Florida State University president, said any citizen has a right to challenge any law, explaining why his client has what is known as legal standing.

"A blind trust by its very nature is secret," D'Alemberte told the judge. "Standing is what gives life to the Constitution."

The League of Women Voters, First Amendment Foundation and nearly a dozen media organizations filed friend-of-court briefs siding with Apthorp.

Solicitor General Allen Winsor, representing Secretary of State Ken Detzner, argued that the wording of the Sunshine Amendment gives the Legislature power to define what "full and public disclosure" means. "I don't think you have jurisdiction," he told the judge.

Winsor noted that the blind trust law was recommended by a statewide grand jury that looked into public corruption, and that when the blind trust law was approved in 2013, not a single lawmaker opposed it.

During nearly 21/2 hours of arguments, Circuit Judge John Cooper posed dozens of hypothetical questions to both sides' lawyers. "It's not an easy issue," he said.

Cooper noted that when Scott filed his qualifying papers Monday to seek re-election, he publicly listed the assets in his portfolio, which included a net worth of $132.7 million.

"The governor, it seems to me, is in full compliance with state law even if the blind trust statute is found to be unconstitutional," said Cooper, who gave no indication how soon he would rule in the case.

D'Alemberte and Apthorp are both Democrats, and Republicans who back Scott have accused them of playing election-year politics.

As he left court, D'Alemberte said it's possible Cooper would rule that Apthorp had no legal right to sue. "That's the issue that troubles the judge, and it obviously troubles us, too," D'Alemberte said. "But if not Jim Apthorp, who? Do citizens not have the right to go into court and challenge a statute?"

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Judge hears arguments for, against blind trust law used by Gov. Scott 06/19/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2014 9:37pm]
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