When state Sen. Mike Fasano requested records about a $125 million pension fund investment, the head of the State Board of Administration sent him a three-page invoice for $10,750.13.
"The cost to the Florida Retirement System (FRS) for satisfying your inquiry using original documents is estimated to exceed $10,000," SBA chief Ash Williams wrote, "and completion of the associated legal process will likely take months."
Stunned, Fasano fired back with a letter to the SBA trustees: Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi.
"I do not want to accuse anyone of attempting to hide anything… '' wrote Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "However, when a $10,000 bill is sent with a warning that it could take months to supply the information requested, a reasonable person could perceive that perhaps something is in fact being hidden."
The SBA manages $145 billion in Florida pensions and other public funds for hundreds of cities, counties and school districts, and 1 million current and former public employees.
At issue is the SBA's decision to invest up to $125 million of public pension money in a hedge fund called Starboard Value and Opportunity, a spinoff of Ramius LLC.
Williams signed off on the investment in early 2010 after exchanging e-mails with Ramius' president, Thomas Strauss. Strauss was a client at Fir Tree Partners, a hedge fund where Williams was a managing director before taking over the SBA in October 2008.
Williams said the firm was under consideration when he arrived at the SBA and won the deal on merit.
The St. Petersburg Times began asking about the Starboard investment in March 2010 and made a formal public records request for documents related to it in July 2010. But the SBA declined, saying the transaction was still in negotiations.
In June 2011, the Times turned to Fasano for help. A week after Fasano filed his request for records, Williams' staff said that it had identified more than 6,000 documents and that many needed to be reviewed for confidential information — a process that might take 380 hours.
To save time and money, Fasano narrowed his request to include some e-mails and evaluation reports about the deal.
Instead, Williams produced what he called a "detailed time line" of the transaction with "supporting contemporaneous documents."
"I will be happy to walk you through this section by section and answer any questions you may have," Williams wrote Fasano. "I believe this will be a straightforward exercise we can easily accomplish by phone."
However, the time line and the documents raised more questions. So Fasano sent a new request for records, including the procedures used to pick Starboard and information about other firms that competed for the pension investment.
Nineteen days later came Williams' reply: "I respect the legislative oversight function. I believe the facts reflect the propriety, objectivity and professionalism of SBA's processes and I am always willing to share our processes with our stakeholders."
Williams repeated his offer to talk Fasano through the deal: "If you prefer the documentary approach, we will comply and commence work upon agreement of financial arrangements."
He attached an invoice: Complying with the request would likely take 300 hours of a paralegal's work at $22.84 an hour; 50 hours of a lawyer's work at $52.40 an hour; 20 hours of information technology work at $34.14 an hour; three hours of a senior investment officer's work at $41.78 an hour; three hours of a senior analyst's work at $24.13 an hour; $450 for 3,000 photocopies and so on.
Total estimate: $10,750.13.
An SBA spokesman said the charges are legal and reflect "the cost to the participants of the (Florida Retirement System) to fulfill such an extensive request."
Scott, Bondi and Atwater, who oversee the SBA, knew about Williams' response before he sent it, the spokesman added.
All ran for office last year vowing to bring more openness and accountability to the agency that runs the nation's fourth-largest public pension system.
Fasano, a strong proponent of public records laws himself, sent a letter to the three officials.
"My first concern is why should it take months to share information that should already be at the SBA's fingertips," Fasano wrote. "Secondly, as a state senator, I am being given an invoice for $10,000 to pay for information pertaining to Florida's investment decisions. What would it cost a private citizen who may request the same information? Beyond reasonable photo-copying costs, why should it cost anything for one state agency to provide information to another?"
Bondi's office told Fasano it was looking into the matter.
Gov. Scott's office declined to comment. A spokeswoman for CFO Atwater said because of the "volume and potential cost associated with this request," Fasano should talk to the SBA.
Fasano called Atwater's office's response "disturbing."
"What would that accomplish?" Fasano said. "To have a one-on-one session with Ash Williams, the individual who approved the Ramius investment, would be akin to meeting the fox who guards the henhouse.
"As this issue drags on, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that someone has something to hide."