“Commissioner Fried established the blind trust to avoid even the appearance of any conflict of interest, despite there being none,” said Eric Johnson, a spokesman for Fried’s political campaign committee, Florida Consumers First. “She fully intends to comply with any laws regarding blind trusts, which will be apparent when her financial disclosure is filed, just like any other elected officials.”
Just months after being sworn in as Florida’s new Agriculture Commissioner in January 2019, Fried filed a financial disclosure, required under Florida law, showing a sharp jump in net worth from $271,613 reported in 2018 to over $1.4 million the following year. About $700,000 of that can be attributed to a house she was gifted by marijuana executive Jake Bergmann, to whom she is now engaged. How she managed to accumulate the remaining $430,000 in income while she was actively campaigning for statewide office is unclear.
Johnson declined to go into specifics regarding the source of Fried’s 2018 windfall, saying only that Fried and her attorneys were aware of the repeal of the blind trust law and that they would make an appropriate decision in full compliance with state laws and ethics policies. Fried’s blind trust was established prior to the passage of repeal, and other public officials, most notably former Florida governor Rick Scott have used blind trusts in the past to ensure they weren’t aware of investments they held while making decisions that could affect those investments.
But there’s a difference between shielding a public official from knowing which investments they hold, versus shielding the public from knowing how an elected official earned their income to begin with. State Senator Tom Lee, who sponsored last year’s legislation to repeal the blind trust law, thinks public officials should not be allowed to mask the original source of wealth in a blind trust, as Fried did all of last year.
“There are more wealthy individuals seeking office these days and I welcome them all. Their life’s experiences can bring a lot to government,” Lee said. “However, it is important that the privileged understand that, in Florida, we all play by the same set of rules and, if you are ashamed about how or where you’ve generated your wealth, perhaps you should reconsider your suitability for public service,” said Lee.
Lee acknowledges that financial disclosure requirements and Sunshine Laws are an inconvenience for public officials, especially because personal information can be weaponized by the media and political adversaries, and that it’s especially difficult for high-net worth individuals.
“However,” Lee says, “none of that justifies the use of a mechanism designed for the convenience of politicians at the expense of the public’s right to know.”
Under Florida law, Fried and other public officials have until July 1st to file an updated financial disclosure statement.
Brian Burgess contributed to this story.