By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Tallahassee
TALLAHASSEE — As she runs for governor in 2022, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried will have to fend off allegations that she violated state law by not properly disclosing financial information.
The state Commission on Ethics on Wednesday issued an order finding “probable cause” that Fried did not properly report income in 2017 and 2018 on financial-disclosure forms filed with the state.
The commission ordered a public hearing about whether Fried, who was a medical-marijuana lobbyist before getting elected in 2018, violated state law. The commission made the probable-cause determination Friday and released the order and other case documents Wednesday.
Commission staff members started an investigation after Evan Power, a Leon County Republican leader and lobbyist, filed a complaint in June. The complaint came after Fried filed amended financial-disclosure forms that showed substantially more income in 2017 and 2018 than she previously reported.
Power’s complaint alleged that Fried, a Democrat, violated the “public trust” by not fully and accurately submitting reports for 2017 and 2018.
But in an August response, Fried’s attorney, Benedict Kuehne, described the complaint as “meritless.”
“The complaint is nothing more than a calculated political effort to impugn Commissioner Fried’s integrity during the election season and should be dismissed outright for lack of legal sufficiency and probable cause,” Kuehne wrote.
State elected officials are required by law to file annual forms that detail information such as income, assets, liabilities and net worths. Disclosure requirements also apply to state candidates, as Fried was for the first time in 2018.
Generally, the reports reflect financial information from the end of the prior year. For example, a report filed in 2018 would reflect financial information from 2017. They are designed, at least in part, to shed light on any conflicts of interest for public officials.
A probable-cause recommendation filed in September by commission Advocate Elizabeth Miller, a lawyer, said Fried in June 2018 reported receiving income of $84,000 in 2017 from her lobbying firm Igniting Florida, LLC. In May 2021, she filed an amended form that reported $165,761 in income for 2017.
Also, Miller wrote that Fried on July, 1, 2019, filed a report that showed zero income in 2018 from the lobbying firm. On Jan. 30, 2020, Fried filed an amended form showing $72,000 in income in 2018. In May 2021, she filed another amended form listing the income as $351,480.
The documents filed by Miller and Kuehne said Jason Blank, a Fort Lauderdale attorney, helped prepare the forms. Blank told investigators that he received the financial information from Fried and later determined amendments were necessary after consulting with her accountant and reviewing tax returns.
Kuehne’s August response said Fried “disclosed her financial interests in as complete a manner as possible and amended the Form 6 (the financial disclosure form) when new and updated information was brought to her and Mr. Blank’s attention.”