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Defending pension blunder, GOP leaders undermine campaign slam of Alex Sink

TALLAHASSEE — Two of Florida's top Republicans are criticizing claims made in one of their own party's political ads savaging Democrat Alex Sink for her role in problems with the state's pension fund.

Attorney General Bill McCollum and Senate President Jeff Atwater have both addressed the State Board of Administration's handling of the $117 billion retirement fund in comments over the past two days. The men do not defend Sink by name or overtly refute the ad. But their comments do run counter to key claims made in the commercial.

The ad, which stopped running Monday, has two claims: that Florida's pension fund lost $24 billion, and that Sink was "in charge" of the SBA, which operates the fund. The ad ran just days after a St. Petersburg Times story highlighting risky investments at the agency.

The ad has been replaced with a separate spot that no longer uses the $24 billion figure but says Sink was "in charge" of pension fund investment decisions.

McCollum, who is a trustee of the same investment agency along with Sink and Gov. Charlie Crist, said the pension fund weathered the recession and is faring better than other funds across the country.

At an SBA meeting Tuesday, McCollum asked SBA executive director Ash Williams a series of questions to highlight the strength of Florida's investments.

"I'm not going to tell you that everything's perfect and that there's no risk, that's not the case," Williams said in response to a McCollum question about potential risky investments. "To the extent that we do have any (losses) I think it would be modest at best."

Republican Party spokesman Dan Conston acknowledged last Thursday that the party used the wrong figure in the ad after the Times/Herald questioned the accuracy of the claim. Nonetheless, the party continued to run the ad through the weekend.

If the pension fund investments were sold at their current value, Florida would lose about $8 billion compared with their peak performance during the stock market bubble in 2007.

But Williams, along with Sink and McCollum, argue that focusing on that figure makes little sense, because the assets are likely to regain their value over time.

"Why would you fixate on a particular value at a particular point in time?" Williams said. "If you don't have to sell, you don't have to sell."

Atwater, running to replace Sink, was asked if it was accurate to say that she was "in charge'' of the investment decisions, and he told the Miami Herald editorial board on Wednesday that said the board as a whole should take responsibility for any problems.

He mentioned the Times story that showed some state money managers tried to skirt rules that prohibited them from buying certain risky securities.

"I believe all three trustees were using their best judgment," Atwater said, adding that ultimate responsibility falls on the board as a whole. "I don't think there's any one unique individual."

He added: "I think they were misled."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Defending pension blunder, GOP leaders undermine campaign slam of Alex Sink 09/29/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 9:36pm]
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