Republicans delivered Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, now a candidate for governor, a political one-two punch after she amended her financial disclosures to account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in past income.
State Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota, also head of Florida’s Republican Party, Friday sent a letter to fellow Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican and chair of the Senate Rules Committee, and state Rep. Erin Grall, the Vero Beach Republican who chairs the House Public Integrity & Elections Committee.
He asked that they “use all available resources and powers to immediately
review and audit Igniting Florida” — Fried’s former solo-practice lobbying firm — “to substantiate the compensation” she reported in her public disclosures.
Later in the day, Evan Power — who leads the county parties as the Republican Party of Florida’s “chair of chairs” — filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics, saying among other things that Fried has not “publicly disclosed or properly accounted for the exponential increase in her net worth … since taking office.”
By Saturday, Power sent out a fundraising email blast centered around the ethics complaint.
“Just like when Andrew Gillum violated the public trust, we cannot allow Nikki Fried to not be held accountable for her violations of our ethical codes,” he wrote in the email, referring to the unsuccessful 2018 Democratic candidate for governor.
Gillum last year was found in a Miami Beach hotel when police responded to an apparent drug overdose of another person in the room. He later admitted to a drinking problem, said he was stepping down from public life and went into rehab. He now hosts a podcast.
The moves highlight what is already a bitter contest between Fried and incumbent Republican Ron DeSantis. She began sniping at him not long after they both took office in 2019, then stepped up her criticisms of his pandemic response over the last year.
He’s now branded her as a “lockdown lobbyist” for her stance on COVID-related restrictions. She responded in kind by saying “temper tantrums are for toddlers, not governors.”
Fried calls complaints part of political ‘witch hunt’
In a statement emailed to the USA TODAY Network-Florida, Fried called the complaint a “witch hunt” and said “Republican leaders are terrified of me because they know I will beat Ron DeSantis.”
“I’ve disclosed and have been transparent about all of my finances, including past mistakes when filing forms before announcing for office,” she added. “Humility and transparency just aren’t in (Republicans’) vocabulary.”
“When someone threatens to upend Florida’s corrupt system, those in power will use all of their state government resources and political influence to protect the system that keeps the special interests in control — I’m running to break the system,” Fried continued.
On June 1, Fried joined former Florida Gov. and current Congressman Charlie Crist as a Democratic challenger to DeSantis.
Days before she filed to run for governor, Fried submitted changes to previous financial reports, including adding previously undisclosed income of more than $350,000 from lobbying she did for a Gainesville-area plant farm that was later bought by a medical marijuana concern.
Fried lobbied for San Felasco Nurseries, which had a license to open and operate medical marijuana retail locations in Florida, but was later bought by Harvest Health & Recreation in late 2018. Harvest itself was just acquired by Trulieve, the state’s biggest medical pot company, in a deal worth $2.1 billion.
Fried also is engaged to entrepreneur Jake Bergmann, who founded Surterra Holdings, one of “the largest and fastest growing cannabis companies in the world,” according to his online bio. He now manages Iconoclast Ventures, a “boutique cannabis investment and advisory firm to fund a non-profit that focuses on cannabis research.”
Republicans seek investigations, fines against Fried
In his letter, Gruters reminded the lawmakers that “Florida law provides that anyone who knowingly fails to disclose legislative lobbying compensation amounts, or knowingly provides false information on any report, commits a noncriminal infraction punishable by up to $5,000.”
“We each hold positions of public trust,” he wrote. “In keeping with that public trust, Florida’s Constitution requires public officers to make full and accurate disclosures of their financial interests and Florida law requires lobbying compensation reports to be true, complete, and accurate.
“Nobody is above the law, and it is the Legislature’s duty to ensure that the public’s trust is preserved in this regard.”
Records show she’s amended her financial disclosures before, in early 2020, after realizing she had miscalculated income.
Moreover, the Tallahassee Democrat reported the same year that Fried’s Consumers First political committee was fined by the Florida Division of Elections and paid $1,600 for the late filing of a campaign finance report in October. A spokesman said errors made by a compliance firm delayed the report’s filing.
Beyond failing to report lobbying income, first reported by Tallahassee Reports, Power’s ethics complaint also alleges she should have disclosed retirement accounts as financial assets and noted that her reported net worth more than quadrupled, from almost $272,000 in June 2018 to $1.4 million in December 2019.
“We need to keep fighting the unethical democrats who will stop at nothing to defeat Governor DeSantis and our Republican team,” Power said.
Reach Jim Rosica at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JimRosicaFL.
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