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  1. Florida Politics

Lawsuit: Gov. Rick Scott shields more than $200 million in assets

TALLAHASSEE — 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 at 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 the returns of his wife, 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's and Bush's reports, Scott's 2014 blind trust did not disclose the value of the individual assets listed.

The complaint follows a Times/Herald story published Sunday 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 Times/Herald and investigative Broward Bulldog site have previously reported that the governor's investments in companies that have benefitted from his policies have raised questions about the overlapping nature of his role as private investor and public servant.

Earlier this week, Scott campaign manager Melissa Sellers defended the governor in a prepared statement, saying 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 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 the 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Unlike Crist, Scott has not released his 2013 tax return and has not committed to do it.

The case is being handled pro bono by Tallahassee attorney Don Hinkle, a Crist campaign contributor.

At the core of Sheldon's complaint is a dispute over what qualifies as an asset worthy of disclosure under Florida law.

Sheldon alleges that Scott is obligated to report the value of assets held in his family trusts, including the revocable trusts held by his wife Ann's account, because he is identified as the beneficial owner of that stock on federal forms.

"The people of Florida don't really care whether Gov. Scott is worth $3 million or $300 million,'' Sheldon said. "What they care about is being able to determine whether he has a personal financial stake in the decisions he makes as a public official. What they care about is that their public officials tell them the truth."

Sellers said that while the income from three trusts are included on Scott's joint tax return, the governor is "neither the trustee nor the beneficiary" and, she implied, those assets do not need to be disclosed. Although Scott's name may appear on some financial documents as required by federal law, Sellers said, "the governor has no control over the purchase, sale or change of assets" held in those accounts.

Sheldon's suit counters that several transactions of stock show the assets are held by the governor's multiple accounts and should be fully reported to the public. The lawsuit claims Scott has underreported:

• $10 million in a Texas telecommunications company, NTS, that has received more than $99 million in federal broadband stimulus money;

• $36 million in Argan, a company that specializes in building natural gas power plants;

• $3.9 million in Wireless Telecom, a manufacturer of microwave-based products for the wireless industry;

• And another $90 million in proceeds from two other companies, Drives LLC, an Illinois manufacturer of drive trains, and Continental Structured Plastics, a Michigan manufacturer of truck parts.

The lawsuit cites transactions involving six different companies and concludes that the governor has access to "hundreds of millions of dollars of assets which he moves between a network of trusts, partnerships, accounts and financial vehicles."

Because the governor does not include these assets on his state financial disclosure, the lawsuit concludes that "it is impossible to detect and evaluate the potential conflicts of interest that may exist or develop with respect to his financial interests."

This 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 argues that the "blind trust" statute has allowed Scott to place his assets in an account, managed by longtime business associate Alan Bazaar, that shields each asset annually from public view.

Sheldon's lawsuit alleges that Bazaar violates that statute because he "could not certify in good faith" that the second blind trust Scott established in 2014 meets state requirements to list the value of each asset. It also claims that investments are coordinated between nine of the governor's other accounts, another violation of the blind trust statute.

"Rick Scott has attempted to conceal these interests through transfer to several revocable trusts and undisclosed privately owned business entities,'' the lawsuit claims.

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.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @maryellenklas.

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