Questions of conflict mount over Florida governor’s finances

FILE - In this Monday, April 9, 2018, file photo, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, with his wife, Ann, announces his bid to run for the U.S. Senate at a news conference, in Orlando, Fla. Multimillionaire Scott maintains that he does not have any say over his fortune, but questions are mounting over his finances. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s blind trust might not be so blind.

Shortly after the multimillionaire governor took office in 2011, he established the trust — which is supposed to keep his investments secret from him — to shield him from potential conflicts of interest in his duties as governor.

During his nearly eight years in office, Scott was required to file forms disclosing his investments. Now that he is running for U.S. Senate, however, his wife is also required to reveal her own investments — and they seem to mirror those in Scott’s trust.

“That doesn’t sound like a very blind trust, that’s the bottom line,” said Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer in George W. Bush’s administration who has since left the Republican Party amid criticism of President Donald Trump.

The documents also show that Scott’s investment portfolio has at times included holdings in companies with ties to Florida’s government, including a fund tied to the state’s largest public utility; a credit fund run by the parent company of a high-speed rail line being built in the state; a company that provides drugs to the state’s Medicaid patients and a company that donated land to a new state university. Some of the exact amounts aren’t known because they are reported in ranges, but the investments have varied in size from tens of thousands of dollars to at least $1 million.

Under the state’s blind-trust law, Scott is not allowed to know how his personal money is being invested. Scott says during his time in office he has had no knowledge of any of his investments, or those involving his family members.

“Governor Scott has never made a single decision as governor with any thought or consideration of his personal finances,” Scott’s spokeswoman, Lauren Schenone, wrote in an email to The Associated Press in response to a series of questions about his finances. “The governor’s blind trust is managed by an independent financial professional who decides what assets are bought, sold or changed.”

Schenone added that “the governor does not discuss the first lady’s investments with her or her financial advisers.”

Scott’s opponent in November, incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, seized on the information as evidence, in the words of campaign spokesman Dan McLaughlin, “that Rick Scott is in control of his wife’s trust and his trust, and all these investments raise serious questions about conflicts of interest and ethical transactions.” Later Thursday, Schenone said that “it is disgusting and desperate that Bill Nelson would accuse Governor Scott and his wife of breaking the law with no evidence and that the Associated Press would print these slanderous attacks.”

Ann Scott’s financial disclosure forms, as well as other documents reviewed by The Associated Press, show that she and the blind trust share the same investment manager, Alan Bazaar, a long-time business associate of Rick Scott. The disclosure forms show that Rick and Ann Scott have investments worth tens of millions in the same companies and funds. Ann Scott, during an unrelated investigation, acknowledged she frequently talks to Bazaar.

In addition to the mirror investments and the investments in companies with state business, the documents also show:

— Scott’s former son-in-law sat on the board of a company that at the time was one of the largest assets in the governor’s blind trust. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported last year that Jeremy Kandah was a non-voting observer on the board of Continental Structural Plastics for nearly two years. He was still married to Scott’s daughter when he began sitting on the board. Scott and his family controlled 66 percent of the company, documents show. The company was sold to a Japanese conglomerate for $825 million in early 2017.

— Emails from the governor’s office show in 2013, he spoke to Gregory Scott, a board member of the plastics company who used to work for Scott’s former private equity company and who also runs a fund in which Scott has invested. According to the emails, the two spoke about setting up a meeting with the founder of office supply chain Staples.

— Ann Scott lent between $100,000 and $250,000 to an employee of Bazaar’s company, Hollow Brook Wealth Management. The employee, Cathy Gellatly, used to work for Rick Scott’s Naples-based investment firm. Bazaar declined to answer questions about Scott’s blind trust. Ann Scott, in a statement released by the campaign, said she lent the money to Gellatly because she is a long-time friend.

— Scott says he has no knowledge of his wife’s financial transactions. Yet documents show that a real estate transaction in Texas involving the first lady and one of Scott’s daughters, was notarized by Diane Moulton, one of Scott’s top aides who works in an office next to the governor. Emails from Scott’s office show that Moulton also exchanged emails with Gellatly over the annual financial disclosure form the governor was required to file with the state ethics commission.

—The real-estate transaction pertained to an Austin, Texas-based property that matches the address of Seabass Properties LLC, which Texas records from 2017 show is run by Jordan Leigh Scott, Scott’s daughter. Disclosure forms required as part of Scott’s U.S. Senate bid show the company owes between $1 million and $5 million to Rick Scott’s blind trust, and that the loan has generated between $15,000 and $50,000 in interest income.

Schenone maintains that state law allows the trust to loan money to Scott’s daughter, and she said it was “ridiculous and offensive to question a father making a personal loan to his daughter.”

“It is completely within the purview of the blind trust for the trustee to take out money for expenditures,” she said.

Florida has never had a governor as wealthy as Scott, who uses his own personal jet to travel and does not collect a state salary. He has routinely filed disclosures with the state, but when he filed federal disclosures they showed the family’s wealth is much greater than previously indicated. In addition to Scott’s more than $232 million, Ann Scott declared at least $170 million worth of assets.

During his three runs for office, Scott has used millions of dollars to help bankroll his campaigns. He built his fortune as the head of the hospital giant Columbia/HCA, but was forced out of the job in 1997 amid a federal investigation into fraud. The hospital conglomerate paid a then-record $1.7 billion fine to settle federal charges of Medicaid and Medicare fraud. Scott said he was unaware of any wrongdoing under his watch.

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