By Marianela Toledo | Florida Watchdog
INCREASING: The personal wealth of Florida cabinet members and senators has increased substantially over the years.
MIAMI — For some Florida legislators, politics is more profitable than business. Especially if you serve on the governor’s cabinet.
Financial statements filed with the Florida Ethics Commission shows some politicians grew their personal wealth substantially last year. Members of the governor’s cabinet increased their wealth by an average of 51 percent.
Pam Bondi, Florida’s general state attorney, joined the millionaire club last year when her wealth increased to $1,238,633, 58.6 percent higher than in 2012.
Some increases were more modest. Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam increased his fortune by 8.5 percent, while Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater’s nest egg jumped up 7 percent.
Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera is the exception. His wealth hasn’t increased or decreased since he was sworn into office.
Lawmakers also reaping
Senators haven’t done too shabby either. State Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Kendall, grew her bottom line by nearly 100 percent — up to $395,200 in 2013 from $198,000 in 2012.
State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, had a 43.7 percent increase in the same period, and state Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, saw his fortune go from $463,243 to $652,906, a 41 percent increase.
But growing wealth among state officials isn’t limited to Republicans. State Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, reported being $75,000 in debt in 2011. By 2012, that debt had been reduced to about $32,000, and in 2013 it shrunk to $6,663.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R- Niceville, remains the wealthiest senator in the Florida Legislature with a personal wealth of more than $26 million.
According to a study by government watchdog agency IntegrityFlorida.org, in 2011 the median net worth of all Florida legislators increased 15 percent. Florida Watchdog reported in 2012 the median net worth increased around 10 percent.
Dan Krassner, director of Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan research institute and government watchdog group, said many lawmakers get significant income from special interests who lobby the Legislature.
“The Legislature has created disclosure loopholes so conflicts of interest are easily hidden or just made legal,” he said.
But not everyone in the Florida state government is getting richer. For example, state Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, lost 10 percent of his wealth, reporting a net worth of $899,676 in 2013.
Where the growth comes from
The financial disclosures don’t explain how public officials raised their personal wealth, but the growth likely isn’t related to their salaries.
The financial disclosure from Scott shows he has $43 million invested in RLSI-CSP Capital Partners LLC, and another $4.36 million invested in AG Super Fund LLP. His residence in Naples is worth more than $13 million, while his Montana home is worth another $1.5 million.
Bondi, whose salary is set at $128,972, increased her wealth through the value of her personal residence, which jumped from $665,000 in 2012 to $720,000 in 2013. In 2013, Bondi also added a one-third interest in a condominium, valued at $277,928.
Senators also rely on personal business to increase their wealth, since their salaries are set at $29,697 annually, plus per diem.
Integrity Florida published “Corruption Risk Report: Financial Disclosure” in July 2012, which pointed to a number of problems:
– Net worth, assets, liabilities, business interests and income sources are self-reported and never audited.
– Assets are easily hidden in spouses’ names.
– Flawed blind trust policy enables officials to hide assets and get away with conflicts of interests.
– Financial disclosure is just a snapshot from one day of the year, allowing officials to secretly engage in major transactions throughout the year undetected.
– The ethics commission is prohibited from independently investigating questionable disclosures or potential conflicts unless a citizen files a legally sufficient complaint.
– Legislators are allowed to work for lobbying firms, companies who lobby state government and state government vendors.
– Many lawmakers have consulting firms, law firms or other business interests, but fail to reveal if their clients have business before the legislature or state government.
Krassner applauded Scott and lawmakers for passing a major ethics reform in 2013 that required the online posting of financial disclosure reports on the ethics commission website.
“The public may now access two years worth of officials’ disclosures, which for the first time enables an online comparison of changes from one year to the next,” he said.
That law also required the ethics commission to bring to the Legislature a proposal for an electronic filing system for financial disclosure by December 2015, he said.
Florida Watchdog’s research was done using Florida senators’ financial statement disclosures, uploaded on the Florida Ethics Commission website.