Earlier this week, a small number of Florida media outlets finally covered the festering ethics scandal that has plagued Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried for the past two years. The news resulted from a state ethics commission finding that there is probable cause to believe that Fried violated state ethics laws “by failing to accurately disclose income” on both her 2017 and her 2018 financial disclosure documents.
The news coverage prompted a spokesman for Fried to issue one of the dumbest statements in the history of ethics cases: “Commissioner Fried is being attacked for following the law and showing transparency…”
Ahem. No. Commissioner Fried is shamelessly lying to the public when she claims she is being transparent. Her claim to “transparency” and “following the law” is based on the fact that she recently filed “corrected” financial disclosure statements after getting caught hiding nearly half a million in cash from public scrutiny. That’s like a bank robber claiming he’s “honest” because he put all the money back in the vault after the SWAT Team surrounded him in the bank. Maybe he put all the money back, but he’s still getting cuffed and perp-walked to the slammer.
In January, 2020, The Capitolist first broke the news that Fried had failed to report large sums of cash from a mysterious source. That source later turned out to be a medical marijuana company, an industry over which she has oversight in her role as agriculture commissioner. And she purposefully and quite deliberately took steps to hide the source of her income from voters.
Fried has now been forced to file three different amended financial disclosure documents after The Capitolist repeatedly called her false income claims into question. We were able to identify and correctly estimate her real income even though she has access to her own bank records and we do not.
As a lobbyist prior to becoming the state ag commissioner, Fried had been required to disclose her lobbying income in vague ranges. Using just that information to conservatively estimate her income, it was clear Fried had hidden the truth from Florida voters in 2018 when she understated her her compensation from a medical marijuana company by at least $50,000.
Soon, there were other indicators that Fried was being neither transparent nor truthful about the amount of her income and where it came from. Shortly after winning her election by the narrowest of margins over Matt Caldwell in 2018, Fried’s bank account magically swelled by more than $166,000 – income that was not disclosed by Fried but uncovered by The Capitolist after comparing beginning and ending balances in her checking account on her 2017 and 2018 financial disclosure documents.
Perhaps the most alarming indicator of Fried’s dishonesty and lack of transparency, though, was her clumsy attempt to prevent the public from finding out about her ownership interest in the medical marijuana company in the first place, by creating a blind trust and parking it inside. Fried refused to disclose the blind trust’s contents for more than a year, telling the public she created it to avoid a conflict of interest.
Keep in mind, the entire point of public officials using a blind trust to manage investments is to prevent the public official from knowing which assets and investments they actually own.
Fried played the game exactly in reverse, hoping the media and public were both too busy to notice. In her case, only she knew exactly what was placed the blind trust, and the public was never told. Even more damning, the same asset was still in the blind trust when she was forced by state law to dissolve the trust and disclose its contents in 2019. Rather than use the blind trust to shield her knowledge of her own investments, she merely used it to shield her ownership of an obvious conflict of interest from public scrutiny.
That is neither transparent nor honest, and it’s shameful that editorial boards around the state aren’t tearing Nikki Fried to shreds for it. Instead, they have been utterly silent, while their newsrooms followed suit until this week. And they’ll likely remain silent until another embarrassing release comes from the State Commission on Ethics in the weeks ahead.
Unfortunately, ethics violations for public officials typically amount to a slap on the wrist in the form of a small fine and some negative headlines that political opponents can exploit come election season. With Fried in a tough campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor, she’d be better off settling this case and taking her lumps. The last thing she needs is more public scrutiny of her financial picture. Given her track record of dishonesty so far, there’s no telling what the public might learn from a full public hearing.