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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Gov. Rick Scott's blindness to conflict

Rick Scott, shown on election night in 2010 when he won the governor's race, transferred many of his assets to his wife, Ann. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Published Oct. 26, 2018

During his eight years in office, Gov. Rick Scott's personal wealth has intersected multiple times with companies that do business with the state. The latest tangle: Scott owns considerable holdings in the company that operates the SunPass toll system, and he waited two months to take action when the system failed. The revelations elicited the same tired response that Scott is immune from any conflict because his assets are held in a blind trust, which has never been an adequate explanation because the trust isn't exactly blind.

The SunPass system was supposed to be down for a week in early June for system updates, with tolls accrued during that time to be held for processing later. But the outage stretched over three months while the company that operates SunPass, Conduent, bungled the upgrade — as it has multiple times in other states. Meanwhile, millions of toll transactions piled up, unable to be processed, and customers began receiving late fees and penalties for unpaid tolls. It took more than a month before the state suspended payments to Conduent, and another month to levy a fine against the company for the failures. That's a remarkable show of patience with the company responsible for a crisis that stretched to every corner of the state and created a hassle for millions of motorists, who had to file claims to have their fees forgiven.

But Scott has a substantial stake in Conduent's success. The Tampa Bay Times' Steve Bousquet reported that Scott and his wife, Ann, have invested at least $5 million in a hedge fund that owns $127 million in Conduent stock, and Scott attended a Senate campaign fund-raiser in May hosted by a major Conduent shareholder as well as another in August hosted by Conduent's Tallahassee lobbyist. It's simply too cozy to dismiss.

And it's hardly a unique scenario. Shortly before taking office, Scott transferred his stake in a chain of urgent care clinics he had founded to his wife. Then he began pursuing changes in health care and drug testing that would have been a windfall for the clinics. He and his wife also own shares in two energy companies that are invested in the Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline — which is opposed by numerous environmental advocates but was given quick approval by Scott's administration, the New York Times reported. Just two months ago, Scott announced support for a new rail line between Orlando and Tampa — after rejecting a federally funded high speed rail line along the same route when he first came into office. This time, Scott and wife last year invested at least $3 million in a credit fund for the parent company of All Aboard Florida, which would build the new line. Health care, energy, transportation: The governor's high-dollar conflicts touch key sectors of the Florida economy.

The details of how his finances intermingle with state business are, in some cases, known only because he is running for U.S. Senate, and federal disclosure requirements shed far more light on the extent of his wealth — and its embedded conflicts — than Scott has voluntarily shared with Floridians. Early in his first term, Scott announced he was putting his investments into a blind trust to ensure separation between his personal financial interests and his governing decisions. And he has relied on that move anytime a conflict arises. "The governor has no control over what is bought or sold in the blind trust," Scott's campaign told Bousquet this month.

But that blind trust is not exactly a blackout curtain. The New York Times recently reported that Scott transferred many of his assets to his wife, and that a number of those investments mirror his own. The holdings that are in a trust are managed by his former business associate, and many that he held before his election were not divested and reinvested without his knowledge. To truly ensure that Scott's finances had no way of interfering with his governing, there would need to be a lot more daylight between him and his portfolio.

Conflicts of interest are a hallmark of Scott's tenure in Tallahassee. Even as his eight years in office winds down, new ones keep coming to light -- including his financial and political ties to the company that botched the state tolling system. Yet instead of being forthright and transparent, Scott, both as governor and U.S. Senate candidate, sticks by his blind trust claim. It's up to the voters to see through the charade, and Florida should adopt new financial disclosure requirements for state offices that are at least as comprehensive as the federal requirements.

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