Every weekend, we take a look at the news stories shaping the conversations in Florida’s business, policy and political worlds. Here’s this weekend’s Capitolist wrap-up, which we call “The Wrap.”
It’s time for Nikki Fried to put her money where her mouth is
third fourth fifth sixth time since her election in 2018, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has failed at the simplest of tasks: obeying the law that requires her to tell the truth about her financial holdings. The situation is apparently so bad that she decided it would be better to miss the latest July 1st filing deadline and endure more criticism rather than file the necessary information on time.
Her most recent screw-up, reported three days ago by Florida Politics, was inexcusably ignored by every other media outlet in the state, which by now should realize she cannot be taken at her word on much of anything. Only a few years ago, the state’s veteran reporters, working at legacy media outlets like the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald, among others, tripped over themselves to openly speculate about the financial dealings of former Governor Rick Scott, but apparently aren’t interested when Fried’s bank account suddenly swells up by over a million dollars from an industry that she has oversight of.
But the state’s increasingly biased legacy media is not the focus of today’s column. Instead, we’re just going to lay out the timeline so that if or when it becomes too painful for even the most biased reporters to ignore, they can come here and find the facts laid out for them:
August 10, 2016 – For the first time, Fried discloses the existence of Igniting Florida, LLC, her personal lobbying firm, and the existence of a handful of new clients in the medical marijuana industry. Only one, Florida Compassionate Growers, paid her for lobbying. The report covered the 2nd quarter of 2016, and she reported receiving somewhere between $10,000 and $19,000.
November 10, 2016 – Fried reports payments from GrandiFlora, the nursery that within months would become part of San Felasco Nurseries. Fried collected somewhere between $30,000 to $39,999 from the company to lobby lawmakers in Tallahassee. It was the first in a series of cash payments from a company Fried would later partly own, and also regulate as the state’s agriculture commissioner. More on that later.
February 13, 2017 – San Felasco Nurseries shows up on Fried’s lobbyist disclosure form in a big way – paying her between $40,000 and 49,999 for the final quarter of 2016.
May 8, 2017 – Fried reports another $54,000 in payments from San Felasco for lobbying.
July 28, 2017 – Another $52,000 is paid to Fried for lobbying lawmakers by San Felasco. She’s also paid at least $10,000 to lobby Governor Rick Scott on behalf of San Felasco.
November 12, 2017 – Fried accepts another $20,000 to $29,000 from San Felasco for lobbying lawmakers.
February 10, 2018 – Fried reports another payment of $20,000 to $30,000 from San Felasco.
May 11, 2018 – San Felasco pays Fried somewhere between $20,000 and $29,000 to lobby lawmakers.
June 18, 2018 – Fried launches her campaign for Agriculture Commissioner with medical marijuana as the central theme.
June 20, 2018 – As an official candidate for public office, Fried files the required financial disclosure form, reporting her 2017 income at $84,000 from Igniting Florida, LLC.
August 12, 2018 – Fried files paperwork disclosing another $20,000 to $29,999 in payments from San Felasco.
October 28, 2018 – Fried reports lobbyist income of less than $10,000 from a single client, the School Board of Broward County. San Felasco Nurseries is not listed on the form.
November 18, 2018 – After a close election and a recount, Republican Matt Caldwell concedes the ag commissioner race to Fried, who won by a margin of just 6,753 votes.
January 2, 2019 – Fried files a lobbyist disclosure form claiming zero income from lobbying activities.
July 1, 2019 – Fried files her first financial disclosure as an elected official. It is riddled with errors. But most important, it showed a jump in her net worth of more than $1.1 million, including the “gift” of a $700,000 home from marijuana executive Jake Bergmann. While Fried claims she got engaged to Bergmann, at that time he was still legally married to another woman living in Atlanta. Fried also failed to disclose any of her lobbying income from 2018, instead listing her new state salary, which she did not earn in 2018. She also hid $360,000 worth of assets in a blind trust, claiming she wished to avoid a “conflict of interest.” She refused to disclose how she acquired the asset, nor would she say what it was, making it impossible for the public to know whether or not she was actually recusing herself from any conflict.
July 9, 2019 – For more than a week, Fried’s bizarre financial status is completely ignored by the media until Tallahassee Reports reveals her net worth increased 419 percent after she got elected. The only other outlet to report her increase in net worth was the local Tallahassee NPR affiliate, WFSU, which dutifully published the explanation from a Fried spokesman but completely ignored the glaringly obvious errors and omissions on the report, and failed to ask her a single question challenging how she gained so much wealth in less than a year as an elected official.
October 10, 2019 – The Capitolist publishes a story about the legality of the home allegedly gifted to Fried by Bergmann. The official story given to the media was that she and Bergmann bought the home jointly, which was demonstrably false, as we pointed out. Fried did not disclose any loan or mortgage, and instead of reporting a corresponding decrease in cash assets, Fried actually reported a net increase in cash. Logically, she had to have been gifted the home, which is a clear violation of Florida’s gift ban law. Because Bergmann was still married to another woman, and was the principal executive at a marijuana company that actively lobbied the Florida government, Fried is prohibited by law from accepting any gift over $100 in value.
January 21, 2020 – The Capitolist uncovers a series of errors and omissions on the financial disclosure document filed in July 2019. Among other things, Fried reported a net gain of $166,000 in a checking account without explaining where the money came from. She also failed to disclose any of her lobbying income for 2018, which was required by law. Finally, Fried attempted to play a shell game with the valuation of her company, Igniting Florida, LLC, by claiming it had a “fair market value” of $125,000 even though her company had no clients and no employees, and she listed no assets owned by the company. It appears she claimed this value in order to deflect questions away from what was really hidden in her “blind” trust
[Note: blind trusts are supposed to shield the owner – in this case, Fried herself – from actually knowing what assets the trust actually contains, so that she, as an elected official, can make decisions on behalf of the entire state without any insider knowledge that it might boost the value of her blind trust – a classic conflict of interest. Blind trusts work best for stock holdings that allow an independent manager to buy and sell stock without interacting with the elected official, so that the elected official can correctly claim he or she has no idea what is held in the trust. However, in this case, Fried merely created the blind trust and used it to shield her financial assets from public view. At no point did the trust manager ever buy or sell the single asset it contained [later revealed to be stock in a medical marijuana company], which completely defeated the purpose that Fried claimed for the trust. Because she knew what it contained all along, the trust was only “blind” to the public, not her, meaning the conflict of interest always existed, and more importantly, she knew it.]
January 24, 2020 – While trying to make sense of Fried’s financial records, The Capitolist uncovers yet another discrepancy of $25,000 on her 2018 disclosure. When made aware of the new problem, a spokesman for Fried tells The Capitolist that she intends to file an amended disclosure within days, primarily to fix the fact that she did not include a single dollar of her 2018 income on the initial 2018 report.
January 31, 2020 – Fried makes a new blunder trying to correct the old one. On the heels of the reporting by The Capitolist, she files an amended financial disclosure document to report her lobbying income for 2018 saying she earned just $72,000. Ultimately, the new disclosure fails to answer any of the lingering questions about how she acquired the home, where the $166,000 in cash came from, or anything else. Her reduced income only raises more questions about her sudden increase in net worth.
July 1, 2020 – Fried finally admits the truth – at least part of it – that her “blind trust” was never really blind to her, but is actually a massive financial stake in the medical marijuana company San Felasco Nurseries, her former client. But Fried’s newly filed 2019 financial disclosure still does not explain how her checking account increased $166,000 the year before.
November 17, 2020 – Fried finally takes out a mortgage on the $700,000 luxury home that she originally claimed she’d already “bought jointly” with Bergmann the previous year. News reports revealed, just as The Capitolist had already laid out, that the home could never have been bought by Fried without a mortgage – and a spokesman for Fried acknowledged that Bergmann originally had paid cash for the home and had jointly gifted it to Fried. The move to take out a mortgage was clearly to rectify the obvious gift ban violation.
May 28, 2021 – Fried quietly files an amended financial disclosure document revealing a breathtaking $351,480 in income for 2018, partly in the form of stock from San Felasco nurseries. No explanation is given for why she failed to report the income earlier.
June 1, 2021 – After many hints and much speculation, Fried announces she will seek the Democratic party’s nomination for governor in 2022.
June 2, 2021 – Other state media outlets finally wake up to Fried’s ongoing financial deception. Politico reports the news of the previously hidden income, along with other media outlets. Fried explained that she filed the amended forms “when we were made aware of the filing error.”
June 4, 2021 – State Senator Joe Gruters has finally seen enough. He sends a letter to his colleagues in the Florida House and Senate, urging an investigation into Fried’s ongoing failures to meet basic transparency requirements and file timely financial information to meet the state’s basic legal requirements.
June 6, 2021 – The Capitolist wonders aloud if Fried has an honesty problem, given the fact that she told other media outlets that she fixed the $351,480 “error” as soon as she was made aware of it. But there is solid evidence that her team had been made aware of the errors as far back as January 2020. And despite that, she waited 17 months to correct the problem, then implied to the media that she only just learned of the errors.
July 1, 2021 – Fried fails to meet the deadline for filing her 2020 financial disclosure. She tells Florida Politics she is using the two month “grace period” to ensure everything is accurate.
Good for her. At this point, Nikki Fried can’t afford any more errors. Her credibility is at stake. She’s running to become governor of the 3rd largest state in the country, a state with a $100 billion budget. But how can we trust her to manage that when she can’t even get the math right on her own financial disclosures? She’s long harped on Governor Ron DeSantis about “transparency” and “accountability.” It’s long past time for her to put her money where her mouth is. Florida’s media should expect a full and complete accounting of her stock holdings in San Felasco Nurseries, her lobbyist compensation in 2018, the financial mechanism behind her acquisition of a $700,000 luxury home in Tallahassee, and how her bank account grew by $166,000 in less than a year. Anything less is an insult to Florida’s voters, whom the law says are owed that much.