Nikki Fried mired in ethics dispute over her finances

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, one of the leading Democratic nominees for governor, is coming under fire for her failure to promptly report how much lobbying money she made prior to taking office.

Florida’s ethics commission voted unanimously late last week that there is probable cause that Fried, who was an attorney and lobbyist, violated state law by failing to properly disclose income from her lobbying business. Just days before she began her campaign for governor this year, she amended two separate financial disclosure forms, including one showing previously unreported earnings of $351,480.

The commission’s findings — as well as a recording of last Friday’s meeting — were made public on Wednesday and gives ammunition to Republicans eager to go after Fried, who has been a leading critic of incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis. The appointed panel is made up of nine Republicans and Democrats placed on the commission by the governor and legislative leaders.

Fried has vowed to fight back against the allegations and her campaign maintained that the investigation was sparked by a “politically inspired nuisance complaint” filed in June that is suspicious because it came from a Republican Party of Florida official.

The campaign contended that Evan Power, who is chair of the Leon County Republican Party, filed a “false and fraudulent” complaint because several allegations he made were not upheld by ethics commission investigators. Ben Kuehne, a Miami attorney representing Fried, also told the commission that she was being transparent because she voluntarily amended her reports on her own before any complaint was filed. He called any errors “de minimus.”

“Commissioner Fried is being attacked for following the law and showing transparency, exactly the opposite of what Republican Ron DeSantis and his cohorts do every day,” said Drew Godinich in a statement which also called Power “disgraced” because he was once arrested for DUI.

Power shot back in his own statement where he commended the ethics commission for “taking the first step in holding Nikki Fried accountable for failing to be transparent with the taxpayers of Florida. Most Floridians rightly have a hard time understanding how one could forget a quarter of a million dollars in income. Sadly, Nikki Fried and her press team have decided to attack Governor DeSantis, the Commission on Ethics, and myself rather than accept responsibility.”

Fried plans to challenge the ethics commission probable cause determination in a hearing before an administrative law judge.

Fried was a political newcomer when she jumped into the race for agriculture commissioner back in 2018. Sticking to a campaign platform that focused primarily on guns, marijuana and water quality, Fried won the Democratic primary and narrowly defeated Republican Matt Caldwell in the general election.

Fried altered her previous financial disclosure forms four days before her official entry into the governor earlier this year.

Fried amended the forms she filed back in June 2018 when she qualified for the ballot the first time to show that instead of earning $84,000 from her consulting company, Igniting Florida, in 2017 that she actually earned nearly $166,000 during the previous year.

Fried also amended her forms for 2018 not once but twice. In July 2019, Fried reported that her only salary for the previous year was the money she earned as agriculture commissioner. Several months later — in January 2020 — Fried amended her disclosure to show that she had earned $72,000 from Igniting Florida. She changed it again in May to report that she had earned $351,480 from Igniting Florida.

There was no real debate among ethics commissioners ahead of their vote although there were some questions.

Don Gaetz, a member of the commission and father of Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, asked questions about why the amounts listed by Fried were changed and when it actually translated into money for the commissioner.

“I thought my finances were complicated,” Don Gaetz, who is a multimillionaire and former state Senate president, said at one point during a back and forth with Kuehne.

Kuehne attempted to explain to commissioners that Fried, a first time candidate, had to file her first financial disclosure in 2018 before her taxes were finalized. He explained that the value of Fried’s work wound up being more than initially anticipated. Kuehne did acknowledge that eventually Fried was given cash for her work that in part came from work she did on behalf of a Gainesville-based nursery that was eventually acquired by a medical marijuana company.

Investigative records released by the commission showed that they attempted to interview Fried, but in the end Kuehne submitted a statement on her behalf.