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SBA chief Ash Williams defends $10,750 bill for public records request

TALLAHASSEE — Ash Williams, head of the State Board of Administration, on Monday defended his response to state Sen. Mike Fasano's "extraordinarily large" public records request and his decision not to fill an agency watchdog position, stances that earned him terse lashings from top elected officials just weeks ago.

Williams told an SBA audit committee that fulfilling the request of Fasano, R-New Port Richey, for information relating to a $125 million investment of public pension money in a hedge fund, requires locating thousands of documents — not pages. The hedge fund is Starboard Value and Opportunity, a spinoff of Ramius LLC.

"We've tried to handle it as judiciously as we can, and we're continuing to work on responding to it," he said. SBA staffers are working with the Attorney General's Office on analyzing costs for records, he said.

Auditors prodded Williams about the public records spat as they begin a review of the SBA's procedures for fulfilling those requests. He said it all started in July 2010, when the St. Petersburg Times raised questions about two firms he knew from years in the private sector that were contacted by the SBA for investment opportunities. The inference of the stories, he said, was he had a conflict of interest.

"Obviously I'm very sensitive to any suggestion that I in any way used my position inappropriately," he said.

The Times' coverage led Fasano to request records about the Ramius investment. Williams offered a couple options but Fasano did not choose one. Instead Williams received a broader request from Fasano, which led to a $10,750 bill and the ongoing flap. Attorney General Pam Bondi has called the bill "indefensible."

Fasano's request for information also brought the SBA's unfilled inspector general position to light. The agency has been without one since early this year when Melinda Miguel left to become Gov. Rick Scott's chief inspector general.

In a letter, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater told Williams he was frustrated by the vacancy and asked Williams to present a candidate to the SBA trustees by the first November meeting. Williams said he divided the inspector general's duties among other units within his agency.

Audit committee vice chairman Rodolfo Engmann asked if an SBA inspector general would be the right person to investigate complaints of inappropriate contacts with advisers.

"I don't know that we've ever had an allegation of that nature, first of all," Williams said. "And secondly, I don't know that the presence of an inspector general . . . would necessarily have had bearing because the functions of the inspector general were covered either way."

SBA chief Ash Williams defends $10,750 bill for public records request 10/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 24, 2011 11:10pm]
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