Records filed in June of 2019 show Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is living the high life, riding a wave of sudden financial prosperity, thanks in part to her marijuana industry investor and romantic partner, Jake Bergmann. But Fried’s sudden spike in net worth, more than 400% higher than last year, may run afoul of Florida’s ethics laws.
That’s because Fried posted a $1.1 million windfall, first noted by Tallahassee Reports in July, which is mostly attributed to her acquisition of a $700,000 luxury home in northeast Tallahassee. Records show she and Bergmann have had joint ownership of the property since February, but they are not married. Florida ethics laws prohibit Fried from accepting gifts greater than $100 in value, particularly from someone like Bergmann who has business before the Department of Agriculture.
The initial story by Steve Stewart uncovered new details about Fried’s rising wealth, but answers provided to Tallahassee Reports by a Fried spokesman raised even more questions about the relationship between Fried and Bergmann, who owns a large stake in Surterra Wellness. The company is a major medical marijuana player that strongly supported Fried’s election campaign, dumping tens of thousands of dollars into a pro-Fried political action committee last year.
Fried has made medical marijuana regulation a major policy focus in her administration, and she’s recently been accused of overstepping her legal authority in her push to regulate the hemp industry. When Fried won the race for agriculture commissioner, Bergmann quietly stepped down as CEO of Surterra, but he retained his ownership stake in the company. He and Fried have been dating for about two years.
“There’s a conflict of interest here, obviously,” said one political observer who declined to be identified because he works in the same circles as Fried. “With her net wealth magically increasing by 400 percent, it raises serious questions about how she managed to pocket a million dollars in home equity and cash less than a year after winning the election.”
The Tallahassee Reports story found that Fried didn’t take out a mortgage to pay for the property – she doesn’t list home debt as a liability on her financial disclosure form. Documents obtained by The Capitolist show Bergmann’s name as the purchaser, and that he paid a documentary stamp tax rate consistent with a transaction that did not rely on debt to finance the home. Here’s an excerpt from Tallahassee Reports:
The majority of the Fried’s net worth increase is tied to a $701,000 home that was purchased in Tallahassee. Tallahassee Reports recovered a deed for the property, dated February 2, 2019, that shows the grantors as “Jake Bergmann and Nicole Fried as joint tenants with rights of survivorship.” Fried showed no debt associated with the property on her financial disclosure form.
A spokesman for Fried did not respond to questions seeking answers about how she acquired an ownership stake in the house.
According to financial disclosure documents filed by Fried in 2018 and 2019, her net worth was not sufficient to pay cash for the home on her own. Records show that all of her cash sources, including checking accounts, retirement accounts and other cash, went up over the past twelve months, reducing the possibility that those accounts were used to purchase the $700,000 worth of equity in the dream home that she claimed in her state disclosure.
So where did the money come from?
If the home was paid for by Bergmann, Florida’s gift ban law is explicit. It not only precludes elected officials, including Fried, from accepting gifts with a value over $100, it also precludes Bergmann from offering such gifts. Florida law also makes no exception for “romantic partners,” even if they plan to marry at some point in the future. As one of the principle agents of a corporation with business before the Department of Agriculture that employs registered, executive branch lobbyists, Bergmann is clearly prohibited from giving large financial gifts to Fried, and Fried is clearly prohibited from accepting such gifts:
(5)(a) A vendor doing business with the reporting individual’s or procurement employee’s agency; a political committee as defined in s.106.011; a lobbyist who lobbies a reporting individual’s or procurement employee’s agency; the partner, firm, employer, or principal of a lobbyist; or another on behalf of the lobbyist or partner, firm, principal, or employer of the lobbyist is prohibited from giving, either directly or indirectly, a gift that has a value in excess of $100 to the reporting individual or procurement employee or any other person on his or her behalf;
If Bergmann paid for the house in which Fried now claims ownership, that is tantamount to a $700,000 gift from a medical marijuana executive who is deeply invested in shaping marijuana policy in the state. In this case, Nikki Fried’s excessive activism on marijuana and hemp issues, combined with the financial windfall in the form of a luxury home from Bergmann, demonstrates a failure on her part to avoid the appearance of impropriety. If she and Bergmann do become married at some point, ethics experts say she’ll need to be even more cautious in her business dealings with Bergmann and her decisions on marijuana policy.
Note: This article was originally published October 10th, 2019. It has been republished in the wake of new revelations about the status of her engagement to Jake Bergmann. According to Politico, Bergmann was still married to another woman as of June 19th, 2020.