Nikki Fried’s ethics defense claims she wasn’t aware of “incomplete” financial information

by | Mar 9, 2023

Former Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s financial disclosure failures go before the State Commission on Ethics at 9am on Friday, where a lawyer for the commission is expected to argue that a six-count complaint against her be dismissed. A motion to dismiss the case argues that although Fried’s initial filings were incorrect and incomplete, she claims she did not know that they were incomplete at the time of the filing.

However, the motion to dismiss doesn’t account for the fact that Fried’s financial filings and her defense of their inaccuracies stem directly from her attempt to hide ownership in a medical marijuana company called San Felasco Nurseries (which later become Harvest Health). The ethics complaint, filed by Leon County Republican Party Chairman Evan Power, alleges that Fried failed to report the amount of income she received for the years in question, and the Ethics Commission subsequently found probable cause that Fried failed to disclose both the amount and the source of her income.

The facts show that Fried in 2017 attempted to shield her ownership stake in San Felasco Nurseries from the public by inflating the value of her lobbying firm, Igniting Florida, LLC, claiming the company itself was worth $125,000 when it had no physical assets. The very next year, she listed the company with a fair market value of zero, but in its place, Fried suddenly owned a blind trust that contained a single undisclosed asset: Ignite Holdings, LLC, with a value of over $360,000. Years later, Ignite Holdings’ value was revealed to be her ownership stake in San Felasco Nurseries.

Under Florida law, her stake in the company should have been itemized on her financial disclosure forms. Fried instead attempted to hide it from public view and went to great lengths to do so, through the backward use of a blind trust, which is intended to block elected officials from knowing what they own, not just the public. In this case, Fried knew what she owned all along and refused to acknowledge it until she got called on it.

There are other unaddressed issues in the motion to dismiss the case, including the fact that between 2018 and 2019, cash in Fried’s personal checking account increased by over $166,000, an amount far exceeding her salary as Agriculture Commissioner. Whatever the source of that income, it also was never disclosed. But because Fried reported having the cash, there’s little room for her to claim she “didn’t know” where it came from.

The Ethics Commission advocate’s recommendation to dismiss the case includes an explanation, supplied by Fried’s defense, that the inaccuracies in her filings stemmed from “initially incorrect and incomplete” financial information regarding Fried’s company, Igniting Florida, LLC:

“…the reason [Fried], her preparing lawyer, and her CPA did not have access to the income information upon the original filings was because the underlying income information pertaining to Igniting Florida was initially incorrect and incomplete but was not known to be incomplete at the time of submitting for the Form 6 in both 2017 and 2018.”

It’s not clear how Fried, her own accountant, and her lawyer were not aware that Fried’s checking account increased by $166,000 during those years, nor how they could not have known that she owned a financial stake in a medical marijuana company, especially when The Capitolist, with limited access to her financial records, could plainly tell that she was omitting something significant.

The case goes before the Ethics Commission at 9am on Friday.



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