Brevard politicians see big wealth gains in office

Brevard County politicians have done very well while in office — financially, at least.

A FLORIDA TODAY analysis of a decade of financial disclosures for nearly two dozen current and immediate past county and state-level elected officials showed some have more than tripled their personal wealth since being elected.

Of 21 officials included in the review, at least seven of the 17 who have been in office long enough to file multiple years of disclosures saw wealth gains of more than 200%, even accounting for inflation, the analysis showed.

Among those seven officials were current and former county commissioners, a state senator and the Brevard County sheriff.

Our review showed the biggest gains were made on unique circumstances, such as the accrual of assets through marriage or from private transactions with wealthy family members, or the elimination of substantial debt, according to officials’ self-reports.

The most consistent source of wealth growth, though, was property and real estate investment, especially pricey homes that shot up in value during the pandemic.

Who are the wealthiest politicians:Political Currency: Brevard’s wealthiest politicians (and how they made their money)

What the results show — and what they don’t show

Those results would make sense, given Brevard’s overheated pandemic-era housing market that at one point was the fourth most over-valued in the nation, with prices over 60% above expected market trends, according to an August 2022 study.

The Federal Reserve reported that high home values during the pandemic contributed to a 37% surge in the average family’s net worth, the highest gains on record, according to the October report.

It’s harder to directly compare gains over the longer term between elected officials and the public, as there was no data immediately available on changes in wealth for Brevard residents. There may be some reason to think the results we found are unusual, however.

A 2020 study from the Pew Research Center showed that during a similar housing and stock market boom in the decade between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, the median reported net worth gained by American families was around 55%. The wealthiest families, among the top 5% in the nation, saw median gains around 88% during that same period, Pew reported.

It’s important to note that these figures can change based on how they are calculated. Moreover, we have not yet looked closely at the details of transactions leading to major wealth gains, many of which are not included in financial disclosures but which may be found in other public records.

An obvious and still unanswered question is whether any of these officials may have voted on policies that directly contributed to the growth in their wealth.

The Florida Constitution has required elected officials to disclose personal financial information since 1976. The purpose of the amendment was to allow voters to keep watch on their leaders, hold them accountable and prevent the abuse of the public trust.

That is why FLORIDA TODAY has undertaken this project, of which this story is only a part of the early results. Readers can expect more in-depth analyses — and more answers to important questions — in upcoming stories.

How we analyzed the data

We began by collecting all annual financial disclosure forms (called a “Form 6 — Full and Public Disclosure of Financial Interests”) for each county and state-level official available through the Florida Commission on Ethics online database, representing over 100 individual documents.

Due to limitations in form availability and differences in when officials assumed or left office, we made some decisions about which data to include. In most cases, the Ethics Commission only keeps disclosure records on file for 10 years, so forms for officials elected before 2012 were not available. In addition, while all current officials have filed their 2022 forms, as of publication, many have not yet filed for 2023. Thus, we restricted our range between 2012 and 2022.

To calculate wealth gains and losses in percentages and dollar amounts, we compared the net worth reported by each official in 2012 or their first year in office (if elected after 2012) to the net worth reported in 2022 or their most recent year in office.

We accounted for inflation by converting the dollar value of the first year calculated for each official into the equivalent dollar value during their most recent form on file, using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index inflation calculator. For figures over $10 million (the upper limit of the BLS calculator), we used the independent government data website, officialdata.org.

For example, $1000 in 2012 would be worth about $1,292.66 in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If an official reported $100,000 net worth in 2012 and $200,000 in 2022, we converted the 2012 figure into 2022 dollars (about $129,266) and substracted that from $200,000, giving an adjusted net worth gain of $70,734, or about 55%.

For this story, we then ranked officials according to percentage of wealth gained, and catalogued all reported assets and liabilities for the seven officials who saw their net worth increase by at least 100%, to see where their reported wealth came from.

(Substantially over 100%, actually. Our No. 7 official, State Rep. Thad Altman, saw adjusted gains of 237%, compared to Clerk of Courts Rachel Sadoff, the next highest at 79%. The median gain across all 17 officials surveyed was about 63%.)

Wealth gains ranged widely, with some losses

The amount of wealth gained varied, our results showed, with large gains by the seven officials below offsetting smaller increases from other officials, and in some cases, reported losses. That ranged from a gain of 841% (in the case of State Sen. Debbie Mayfield) to a more than 70% loss reported by Property Appraiser Dana Blickley.

(Blickley’s overall loss was due to a multi-million dollar asset listed as a “judicial judgement” that dropped off her disclosure forms in 2014. From 2014 to 2022, however, her net worth grew by an adjusted 129%, the figures showed.)

The results also showed that Brevard’s wealthiest officials were not necessarily the biggest winners. State Sen. Tom Wright gained more than $5 million since 2018, but sky-high inflation turned that into a net gain of only around $200,000 — less than 1% of his reported $35.6 million net worth, according to our figures.

Brevard’s biggest winners

1. State Sen. Debbie Mayfield

Adjusted wealth gain, 2016-22: 841% (Adjusted net worth increase in 2022 dollars: $3,294,812)

Mayfield was elected as one of Brevard’s two state senators in 2016, after serving four terms in the Florida House. She reported a net worth of $318,552 shortly after her senate election (her earliest disclosure available through the Florida Ethics Commission online database). By form year 2022, that had shot up to $3,686,415, an inflation-adjusted increase of about 840%.

Much of the growth is due to her riverside Indialantic home, with an estimated worth in 2022 of $4.5 million, according to her disclosures, up from a reported $2.3 million when she and her husband bought it in 2019.

She claimed another $1.36 million in stocks in the electric vehicle company Rivian Automotive, owned by Mayfield’s stepson, R.J. Scaringe, not long after the company went public in late 2021, disclosures show.

State Senator Debbie Mayfield

2. Tax Collector Lisa Cullen

Adjusted wealth gain, 2012-22: 399% (Adjusted net worth increase in 2022 dollars: $450,988)

First elected in 2008, Cullen’s net worth rebounded from -$87,488 in 2012 — driven by about $350,000 in mortgage and bank loan debt — to $337,895 in form year 2022, according to her available disclosures.

Since 2012, she was able to pay down much of her debt while the value of her Cocoa home more than doubled from $184,470 to a reported $462,870 in 2022. That was accompanied by increases in her retirement savings, including about $57,000 in accruals through the state retirement program, which she reported for the first time the same year.

Brevard County Tax Collector Lisa Cullen

3. Fmr. Commissioner Kristine Zonka

Adjusted wealth gains, 2016-22: 347% (Adjusted net worth increase in 2022 dollars: $343,307)

Zonka stepped down from the Brevard County Commission last year to head the Florida Department of Health in Brevard. She saw significant wealth gains between her election to the commission and her resignation, reporting a net worth of $442,175 in 2022 against $80,475 in 2016.

Like Mayfield and Cullen, Zonka’s main source of wealth is her home, which husband Milo Zonka purchased in Indialantic shortly before their marriage in October 2020 for $530,000, property records show. By 2022, that had jumped to a reported $803,000, according to her disclosures.

Zonka also received a $50,000 raise at her job with Health First Medical Group in 2021, where she worked as a nurse practitioner, records show, pumping her annual salary up to $82,698 on top of her reported annual commissioner salary of of $54,545.

Former Brevard Commissioner Kristine Zonka

4. Commissioner John Tobia

Adjusted wealth gains, 2012-22: 337% (Adjusted net worth increase in 2022 dollars: $732,732)

Tobia served in the Florida House from 2008 to 2016, when he was then elected to the Brevard County Commission. His wealth in office grew on real estate transactions in South Brevard, flipping a series of homes mainly in his commission district in Grant Valkaria, along with some in Satellite Beach and Palm Bay, disclosures show.

That included a riverfront development along U.S. 1 in Grant Valkaria that property records show Tobia bought as a vacant lot in 2016 for $152,000, which he then built a home on and turned around for $755,000 in 2019. He made a similar flip in 2015, selling for $1.1 million a home he built on a plot in Satellite Beach for which he paid only $216,000 two years earlier.

The developments helped ratchet his net worth from a reported $168,000 in 2012 to $949,900 in 2022.

Brevard Commissioner John Tobia

5. Sheriff Wayne Ivey

Adjusted wealth gains, 2012-22: 272% (Adjusted net worth increase in dollars: $731,652)

When Ivey was elected in 2012, his reported net worth was $208,366. By 2022, that had grown to $1,000,998. His Mims home gained over $220,000 in value since 2012 (to a current reported $474,580), but Ivey also claims at least two other properties, including a vacant lot in Green Cove Springs, south of Jacksonville, worth a reported $30,430 in 2022.

Another property, which Ivey first claimed in 2019 and listed on disclosure forms as a “second residence,” was worth a reported $176,000. The address, like others listed on Ivey’s forms, was redacted; FLORIDA TODAY could not immediately find any details about the property in public records. (State law allows law enforcement officers to redact certain identifying information from public documents.)

The other half of Ivey’s wealth is in three retirement accounts (including two through the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, his disclosures show), worth a combined $456,519. That’s up from $87,886 when he first came into office.

Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey. Credit: Brevard County Sheriff's Office

6. Fmr. Elections Supervisor Lori Scott

Adjusted wealth gains, 2012-21: 245% (Adjusted net worth increase in 2021 dollars: $518,549)

Scott retired midway through her term in late 2022, passing the seat to her director of information technology and Gov. Ron DeSantis-appointee Tim Bobanic. She was first elected in 2008.

Scott’s reported net worth grew from $174,161 in 2012 to $730,030 in form year 2021, not long before her resignation, according to her disclosure forms. Her biggest gain, and the main driver of her wealth growth, was the timely purchase of a half-million dollar home in Melbourne in late 2019, propped by the sale of her prior home in Palm Bay at about $150,000 profit, property records show.

Her home grew in value during the pandemic, adding another $100,000 to her net worth by her final form year in 2021.

Former Brevard Elections Supervisor Lori Scott. Credit: Brevard Supervisor of Elections Office

7. State Rep. Thad Altman

Adjusted wealth gains, 2012-22: 235% (Adjusted net worth increase in 2022 dollars: $3,028,926)

Altman has been among Brevard’s longest-serving politicians. He was first elected to the State House in 2003 after winning a special election to succeed Mike Haridopolis, and served until 2008, when he was elected to the State Senate. He returned to the State House in 2016.

Altman was in office for nine years by 2012 (the earliest disclosure form available), reporting a net worth of just under a million dollars at the time. The son of late Brevard County real estate developer T.A. Altman, Thad Altman’s wealth was by then well-established. That included a half-million dollar home in Rockledge, another home in Melbourne and a 15% stake in the Pines Resort apartment complex in Indian Harbour Beach, owned by his parents’ company.

Those investments had nearly doubled in value by 2018, and then again by 2022, when he reported a net worth of $4,316,850. That included a $2 million gain on a doubled share of the Pines Resort between 2020 and 2021, and a $360,000 stake in an Indialantic beachfront home owned by a family trust, in addition to his Rockledge and Melbourne homes.

Thad Altman

Eric Rogers is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Rogers at 321-242-3717 or esrogers@floridatoday.com.

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