TALLAHASSEE — Attorney General Pam Bondi said Tuesday at a meeting of the Florida Cabinet that it was "indefensible" for state Sen. Mike Fasano to receive a nearly $11,000 invoice after he requested records regarding Florida pension fund investments.
But the agency that calculated the estimate tried to defend it, anyway.
"The cost here, frankly, I think is way too much of the focus," Ash Williams, director of the State Board of Administration, told Bondi.
Williams told Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Cabinet, including Bondi, the request was unique because it was initially made by the St. Petersburg Times.
That request, related to a $125 million investment, was declined. Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who has been in the Legislature since 1994, then asked for the records on behalf of the Times. Because of his standing as a lawmaker, Fasano can view state documents shielded from the public.
But Williams said he still had confidentiality concerns.
"We have to have an absolute assurance that the law will be followed by anyone to whom we make available documents," Williams told the Cabinet. "Anyone. Including members of the Legislature."
Fasano said he was disappointed the SBA trustees — Scott, Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater — did not order Williams to release the records. An SBA spokesman said the trustees knew about the invoice before Williams sent it.
"The $10,000 invoice that he wants me to pay is a perfect example of how he circumvents doing what he should be doing, which is being transparent and being open to a state senator and the people he represents," Fasano said of Williams.
Fasano said Williams "continues to change his story as to why he cannot divulge this information."
"First he tells me it's going to cost $10,000 to cull all this information that should be at his fingertips," Fasano said. "Today he talks about confidentiality."
Of Williams' suggestion that he would show lawmakers the documents if they signed confidentiality orders, Fasano said he would oppose that.
"That would be ridiculous,'' Fasano said, adding that all of the information should be made public. "I have a responsibility to disclose anything.''
Other members of the Legislature have their own questions about transparency at the SBA.
Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, said he had trouble getting answers about a New York City real estate deal in which the SBA lost $266 million.
"There's been enough bad investments made and enough taxpayers' money lost it seems that whenever the Legislature wants to take a deeper look, we get the bucket of cold water thrown at us," Kreegel said. "Repeatedly, shady-appearing deals have lost hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money through what they term alternative investments."
Kreegel said he's discussing legislation with Fasano to prevent this type of nontransparency.
Fasano also has asked Senate President Mike Haridopolos to subpoena the SBA records he is seeking. Haridopolos is reviewing the request, his spokeswoman said.
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. But Fasano asked for documentation to show how the decision was made.
In front of the Cabinet on Tuesday, Williams said the SBA has worked to put many documents on its website. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam was the first to ask directly about Fasano's request.
Putnam questioned what harm would come from releasing the documents to the public. Williams said a breach of confidentiality could "create liability and could result in economic loss, potentially material economic loss to our beneficiaries."
Atwater suggested letting Fasano inspect the records inside an SBA meeting room.
But Bondi was the most forceful, saying Williams should have detailed what could cost his agency five figures instead of giving Fasano an invoice for $10,750.13 and 380 hours.
"I've lost sleep over this bill. It's indefensible the way it's written," Bondi said. "I can't comprehend how it is going to take 7½ weeks for one employee to review these documents."
Williams said he hoped to work with Republican leaders in the House and Senate over the issue.
"It would be my hope that we could address this issue with no cost and no delay," Williams said.
Michael C. Bender can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.