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Ethics panel tosses case over Nikki Fried financial disclosures

The former agriculture commissioner filed amended forms that showed substantially higher income.
 
The Florida Commission on Ethics dismissed a case over former Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried's financial disclosures.
The Florida Commission on Ethics dismissed a case over former Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried's financial disclosures. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published March 10, 2023|Updated March 10, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Commission on Ethics on Friday dismissed a long-running dispute about whether former Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried violated state law by not properly disclosing financial information.

The decision came after an accountant and an attorney for Fried filed affidavits vouching for information that was initially filed showing her income in 2017 and 2018. The forms were later amended to show substantially higher income — spurring a complaint that Fried had violated the law.

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Benedict Kuehne, an attorney for Fried, told the commission that Fried filed amended forms after the firm Igniting Florida LLC restated its income twice. The restatements affected income for Fried, who worked as a consultant and lawyer for the firm, he said.

“In so doing (filing the amended forms), the commissioner (Fried) followed the letter and the spirit of the constitutional requirement for full and public disclosure,” Kuehne said.

The ethics commission dismissed the complaint in a voice vote after little discussion.

The case involved income from periods before Fried was elected agriculture commissioner in 2018. Fried worked, at least in part, as a medical marijuana lobbyist.

Evan Power, chairperson of the Leon County Republican Party, filed the ethics complaint in June 2021. The case played out as Fried, a Democrat, unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2022.

Related: Ethics panel finds that Nikki Fried may have violated Florida disclosure laws

Fried last month was elected chairperson of the Florida Democratic Party, while Power was elected vice chairperson of the Republican Party of Florida.

The ethics commission in December 2021 issued an order finding “probable cause” that Fried did not properly report income and later sent the case to the state Division of Administrative Hearings. But Administrative Law Judge E. Gary Early in November sent the case back to the ethics commission.

Attorney Elizabeth Miller, who serves as an advocate for the commission, filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. She cited affidavits from Fried’s accountant, Jeffrey Stern, and attorney, Jason Blank, who helped prepare the financial disclosure forms.

Miller wrote in the motion that Stern and Blank said the initial forms reflected available information at the time they were filed.

“In summation, the reason respondent (Fried), her preparing lawyer and her CPA did not have access to the income information upon the original filings was because the underlying income information pertaining to Igniting Florida was initially incorrect and incomplete but was not known to be incomplete at the time of submitting the form … in both 2017 and 2018,” Miller wrote.

State elected officials are required by law to file annual forms that detail information such as income, assets, liabilities and net worths. Disclosure requirements also apply to state candidates, as Fried was for the first time in 2018.

Generally, the reports reflect financial information from the end of the prior year. For example, a report filed in 2018 would reflect financial information from 2017. They are designed, in part, to shed light on any conflicts of interest for public officials.

Fried initially filed a report showing income of $84,000 in 2017 from Igniting Florida. But in May 2021, she filed an amended form that reported $165,761 in income for 2017, according to Miller’s motion to dismiss.

Also, Fried initially reported zero income in 2018 from Igniting Florida. In May 2021, she filed an amended form showing income of $351,480.

By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida