Judge Rules Blind Trusts Meet Sunshine Requirements, But Critics Say They Leave Everyone In The Dark

Aug 1, 2014

Blind trusts were upheld in court this week, but challengers intend to appeal.
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If no one knows about a politician’s investments is it the same as everyone knowing?  That’s the question Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled on this week.

Cooper says blind trusts meet Florida’s disclosure requirements because they put politicians on equal footing with the public.  But critics argue the ruling leaves the blind leading the blind. 

Jim Apthorp, the plaintiff challenging Florida’s blind trust statute says there’s a difference between disclosing information and having none at all.

“They are not disclosure; in fact they’re sort of the opposite of disclosure,” Apthorp says.  “Disclosure requires a full and public accounting of a person’s financial interests, and a blind trust gives them very little information to go on.”

When then Gov. Reubin Askew pushed for the constitutional measure now known as the Sunshine Amendment, the idea was to fight government corruption by putting financial dealings out in the open. 

Apthorp would know – he was Askew’s chief of staff at the time.

When a person sets up a blind trust, they give control of their assets to a trustee.  Putting control in the hands of this third party is meant to avoid conflicts of interest.  But Robert Williams, a Tallahassee attorney that deals with estate planning, is skeptical

“I don’t think there really is a practical way of dealing with conflicts of interest or even perceived conflicts of interest, because when you’re talking about politicians you want to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” Williams says.

Williams offers a hypothetical – imagine he’s spent his whole career working with real estate developers.

“So when I pass laws, and do things in the community, I’m going to be slanted towards real estate developers, just by nature,” Williams says.  “It doesn’t mean I have a conflict of interest – I’m not trying to do it for any individual person.  If you look at my holdings, I might have some real estate development holdings.  Why? Because that’s who I hang out with – it shouldn’t be a surprise.”

Apthorp says he and his legal team plan to appeal the ruling.