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Nancy Smith

Careful Who You Blindly Trust: Florida's Sunshine Law and Political Opportunism

May 15, 2014 - 6:00pm

For a lawsuit claiming to lift the state into sunlight and fresh air, the "emergency petition" two notable Floridians filed Wednesday in the state Supreme Court sure smells fishier than a Japanese sushi market.

I never thought I would be arguing on the other side of the Sunshine Law -- legislation I've always believed represents Florida government at its best. But here I am, frankly, feeling the law that helped frame who I amis at this moment in very skillful, very manipulative hands, being used for political expediency, to embarrass and humiliate a governor the petitioners don't want to see re-elected.

This is my take on what's going on:

Jim Apthorp, chief of staff to Reubin Askew, one of Florida's most popular governors, and Sandy D'Alemberte, the former American Bar Association president representing him, filed a petition with the state Supreme Court Wednesday claiming a year-old state law that allows elected officials to place their assets in a blind trust instead of reporting each investment publicly violates Florida's Constitution.

The lawsuit calls on the Supreme Court to strike down the law and to block any candidates from qualifying for the ballot unless they file a full disclosure of all their finances. Financial disclosures are usually submitted during June qualifying.

Allow me to enumerate the reasons you might want to hold your nose, too.

1. It came flying out of the blue like a German stutka in a blitzkrieg. For two men known for their love of transparency, this petition -- straight to the Supreme Court -- was some kind of sneak attack. D'Alemberte called First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen in her Tallahassee office on Monday, then showed up with his wife Patsy to talk it all over.

"It just happened very quickly. All I did was arrange a press conference for Wednesday and write a very cursory press release that went out Tuesday. I didn't have a clue about the actual details of the conference," Petersen told me. The petition was filed the morning of the press conference, in the Florida Press Center, with Erin Jensen from the League of Women Voters attending in support.

So little known by so many -- certainly Sunshine State News wasn't alerted in advance -- yet somebody whispered in the ear of a number of mainstream media organizations, because during the press conference they were announced as on board and ready to write a supportive letter to the court.

A secret lawsuit with media collusion should come off like conspiracy-theory craziness, but this sounds eerily plausible.

2. What was the emergency, that this petition had to be filed two weeks before the candidates' qualifying period and six months before a brutal, probably very close gubernatorial race? It was to honor Reubin Askew, who wanted to do it himself, we're told. Yet, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, say no, Askew liked SB 2 and told them so. Then, if this action wasn't about Rick Scott, how come Scott is the only candidate anywhere in state government whose investments are in a blind trust as the 2013 law allows? There is no one else. And there isn't likely to be anybody else.

3. Who are these people filing this lawsuit? Theyaren't Cinderella (Petersen excepted). It doesn't help the perception of this petition as a political set-up job that Apthorp and D'Alemberte are both Democrats with some record of activism. Apthorp donated to Democrat Alex Sink's campaign with eight separate checks; just last week D'Alemberte endorsed George Sheldon for attorney general. The fact that the left-leaners -- the League of Women Voters and mainstream newspapers -- jumped on board virtually overnight doesn't exactly scream bipartisan.

4.Alex Sink had all her assets in a blind trust in 2010, before the 2013 law was on the books to sanction it. She was violating the Constitution then. True, the media adored her. So did D'Alemberte and Apthorp by all accounts, but they adore the Sunshine Law, too. Don't you wonder just a little, what gives?

5.Nobody challenged the 2013 law when it was under discussion in the Legislature. Not D'Alemberte, not Apthorp, not Askew, certainly none of the members of the press who are submitting amicus briefs. In fact, Barbara Petersen told me SB 2 was not one of the bills the First Amendment Foundation challenged last year. "We liked the bill because we made sure constitutional officers receiving ethics training was a provision," she said.

6. Apthorpe and especially d'Alemberte made long speeches absolving Scott of wrongdoing. "He did everything he was supposed to do," each said in turn. "The governor has some very good lawyers, and they gave him some very bad advice," D'Alemberte said.

Not convincing. Absolution was impossible and they had to know it. The damage was done. The only voters who could hear them at the press conference were reporters. For the voters who really count, Rick Scott wrongdoing will be planted in a corner of their minds -- otherwise, why would one of the state's most respected lawyers and the chief of staff of a wonderful, popular governor have to fight for investment transparency before the highest court in the state? Great PR campaign.

7. The timing -- as I said -- it's the deadest of dead giveaways that this whole thing is a crock. Just close enough to the election to have a cutting effect among Independents. Even Petersen who favors the court action told me, "I agree the timing is unfortunate."

8. This stinks of dragging the courts into politics -- a package wrapped with a bow, not to protect the Florida Sunshine Law, which rightfully could have been a project in, say, mid-November, but to give Charlie Crist and the donor-brethren who put him where he is a wink and a nod.

Crists campaign is knee deep in lawyers. In the Supreme Court, consider their home court advantage: Many of the same law firms dumping big money into Crists political committee gave big to the Supreme Court justices' elections in 2012, too. Now, the second shoe drops ... cash register justice, Charlie-style -- from Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein packing the local courts right up to the Supremes.

Petersen told me Thursday that the secretary of state has until Monday to respond. And Scott, meanwhile, is not argumentative. Through a letter to Secretary of State Ken Detzner from his campaign manager Melissa Sellers, he claims he's prepared to do whatever the laws tells him to do.

How can I say what I say and love the Sunshine Law, you ask? Easy. As a member of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors board in 1991, I helped to get an expansion of the state open-government laws. But this ill-timed petition is something that looks, feels and tastes about as unsavory as anything I've seen in recent years. Sure, I want to see the Florida Sunshine Law defended, but using it in election-year shenanigans? Pretty lousy.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423.

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