A required financial disclosure form filed by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried last year is missing several crucial and required pieces of information: her primary and secondary sources of income earned during 2018, and the disposition of her lobbying company, Igniting Florida, LLC. Those pieces of information, required to be disclosed under Florida’s ethics laws, could go a long way toward shedding light on how Fried managed to become a millionaire in the year she was also busy campaigning across the state for public office.
On the second page of her annual financial disclosure, Fried declined to provide a copy of her 2018 federal income tax return, which would have exempted her from having to fill out Part D of the required Financial Disclosure Form 6. That section asks for full and public disclosure of her primary and secondary sources of income, defined as all “sources of income exceeding $1,000” in 2018. In the “Primary Sources of Income” box on her 2018 form, Fried improperly listed “State of Florida” as her only source of income during 2018, disclosing that she received $128,972 in salary.
But Fried didn’t start receiving a salary from the State of Florida until January of 2019:
Her primary source of income during 2018 would likely have been her lobbying company, Igniting Florida, LLC. But her lobbying income, estimated to be, at most, $120,000, is completely omitted from the form.
SECONDARY SOURCES OF INCOME LEFT BLANK
Fried also failed to list her major clients during 2018, which the instructions describe clearly as “major customers, clients, etc. of businesses owned by reporting person.” The supplemental instructions for completing the form make it clear that any entity which accounted for 10 percent or more of her business’s income must be listed under that section.
Fried leaves this section completely blank. The previous year, she listed just one entity, San Felasco Nursery, a medical marijuana grower licensed to operate in Florida.
MISSING: IGNITING FLORIDA, LLC
Nowhere in Fried’s four-page financial disclosure for 2018 does she mention the disposition of the company she owns, Igniting Florida, LLC. She is required under Florida ethics laws to list the value of all assets with a value of more than $1,000.
On her 2017 disclosure, Fried listed the “fair market value” of Igniting Florida, LLC, her lobbying company, at $125,000. Nowhere on either form does she list ownership of real property, buildings, equipment or other business assets. It’s not clear how she determined the fair market value of Igniting Florida, LLC, given that it has zero assets and the business is built almost exclusively on her relationships with those in state and local governments.
The instructions on the Form 6 recommend that filers also disclose the method by which they place a fair market value on their business:
Fried failed to list any method of valuation for Ignite Florida, LLC, on her 2017 filing, and instead simply wrote: “fair market value:”
For her 2018 disclosure, she doesn’t mention the company at all. So either it has a value of less than $1,000 or she failed to disclose the disposition of the company.
In the years before she became Agriculture Commissioner, Fried’s lobbying income received little scrutiny, in part because there wasn’t much to scrutinize. On her 2017 Financial Disclosure, she reported just $84,000 in lobbying pay.
But just a year after her stunning 2018 victory, a win that minted her as the most powerful and well-known Democrat in Florida, Fried’s net worth (an accounting of all financial assets, not just salary) exploded. The year prior, she claimed a net worth of $271,613, a figure which ballooned to more than $1.4 million in 2018.
A large portion of Fried’s new net worth came from a house that was gifted to her by her boyfriend (now fiance) Jake Bergmann. The gift of a home to Fried worth $701,000 raises ethics questions as well. But even after subtracting the home from Fried’s net worth, there’s still nearly half a million dollars of new cash that Fried failed to account for on her Form 6.
SWIMMING IN CASH
Take Fried’s gifted house, $701,000 in value, completely out of her net worth equation, and we’re still left with a nearly half-million-dollar spike in net worth, almost all of it in cash. We can assume that if Jake Bergmann gifted her a $701,000 home, he likely also gifted her some furniture to go inside of it. That accounts for the difference of $20,000 she declared under “personal effects.” Another rather innocuous line item is her retirement accounts, which saw a relatively modest $35,213 gain – easily explained as a decent return on investment plus additional contributions throughout the year. But where did all the other cash come from?
Fried’s financial disclosure never explains any of this new cash flow as “income,” and none of it would even be noticed if the dollar amounts weren’t so eye-popping. That’s because to see it, one has to compare the 2017 disclosure with the 2018 disclosure and do the math:
THE BLIND TRUST
Through spokespeople, Fried maintains that this increase in wealth is primarily from the acquisition of her home, gifted from her boyfriend, and the remainder is from her consulting firm, Igniting Florida, LLC. The company only earned $84,000 in 2017, and had only three known clients in 2018, paying her an estimated maximum of $120,000 in lobbying fees.
Yet tucked inside Fried’s blind trust is $360,588 in financial assets. Records filed with the Florida Ethics Commission show that the trust is comprised of a single asset: a newly formed limited liability company called “Ignite Holdings, LLC,” which is managed on Fried’s behalf by Andrew Comiter, a partner at a law firm in Palm Beach Gardens.
At a value of $360,588, the value of Ignite Holdings, LLC is worth $89,000 more than Fried’s entire net worth from the previous year. Yet that only accounts for a portion of her new wealth.
MYSTERY CASH DEPOSIT AT BANK OF AMERICA
In 2017, Fried maintained a respectable checking account balance of $29,598.37. A year later, her disclosure showed a new balance of $196,102.62, a gain of $166,504.25, cash that was not disclosed as “income” on her Form 6:
Compare her checking account balance with what Fried spokesman Ben Pollara told Tallahassee Reports in July 2019:
“Nikki’s cash assets and liabilities – including nearly $80,000 in student loan debt – have remained virtually unchanged.”
The statement by Pollara, on Fried’s behalf, is demonstrably false.
ETHICS LAWS AND LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
Under Florida ethics laws, Fried owes an explanation to voters about the sources and amounts of the income she received in 2018 and about the disposition of her business, Ignite Florida, LLC. Her financial disclosure from 2018 was incomplete, did not follow the instructions, and thus not filed in compliance with Florida law.
Because of Fried’s position as the highest ranking and most powerful Democrat elected official in the state, she faces more scrutiny that she may be used to. Her potential conflicts of interest, starting with her relationship with Bergmann, the marijuana industry executive, need to be managed with maximum transparency. But the potential conflicts of interest don’t stop there. Her highest paying client for the years preceding her election was San Felasco Nurseries, a marijuana license holder at the time Fried lobbied for them. Fried’s income in 2018, and the success of her entire political campaign that year, depended heavily on her medical marijuana advocacy, and now she regulates the entire industry.
In a situation like hers, more transparency is needed, not less.
Under Florida law, she has until July 1st to file her financial disclosure for 2019, but with all the errors and question marks from her 2018 disclosure, she owes it to all Floridians to file a corrected and thorough financial disclosure statement.
Brian Burgess contributed to this story.