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Pension agency head says deals based on merits, not pals

Here are three other times Ash Williams used his public position to help his friends — a former client, a hedge fund partner and a longtime state employee turned private consultant. Williams would not be interviewed but has said that contracts and investment proposals at the SBA go through many checks and balances. ''We make decisions on the merits,'' he said. "There is no room for favoritism or impropriety.''


When Williams worked at Fir Tree Partners, he managed client relations. One of the firm's clients was Thomas Strauss. He ran Ramius, a hedge fund firm.

On Dec. 8, 2008, about seven weeks after Williams took over at the SBA, Strauss e-mailed his former investment professional that he wanted the state to invest with his firm.

''Ash,'' Strauss wrote, "I hope you'll consider Ramius.''

On Feb. 2, 2009, Williams wrote Strauss that he had approved documents to keep confidential the SBA's review of a possible investment with Ramius.

Strauss replied that he had picked senior Ramius executive Richard Gray as the point man "to interface with the appropriate person on your team. Perhaps, then you and I can step aside while the necessary work gets done.''

Gray followed up with Williams a week later, asking to speak with "the appropriate investment professional(s).''

The next day senior SBA money manager Trent Webster confirmed he was waiting for a proposal from Ramius.

Webster flew to New York City Sept. 29 and Oct. 26 to meet with Ramius executives.

On March 2, 2010, Williams approved a recommendation to invest a proposed $125 million of public pension fund money with Ramius. It could net Ramius fees of millions of dollars.

The deal is in legal negotiation. The SBA would not release reports about how the investment was evaluated, saying the records are exempt from public disclosure because the deal has not closed.

Webster declined comment, Strauss and Gray did not return messages.


Williams and Judson Reis were hedge fund managers in New York City earlier this decade, Williams as managing director at Fir Tree Partners, Reis as a partner with the Sire Group of Partnerships.

After Williams took charge of the SBA, Reis contacted his friend. "I really like the thought of having you as a partner if it suits your plans,'' Reis wrote on Dec. 4, 2008.

Williams: ''Thanks Jud, it was a pleasure catching up and I appreciate your call. I will look through this info + the 1 pagers and come back to you.''

On Jan. 5, 2009, Williams filed a report with the SBA's inspector general that the week before he had established a personal hedge fund account with Sire.

State rules do not require that Williams report the value of the investment, and he declined to. "I have complied with all relevant disclosure requirements and will continue to do so,'' he said last month.

On Sept. 9, 2009, Williams flew to New York City on SBA business. The next day, Williams took a cab to Reis' office to meet with his partners at Sire.

Five days later, Sire partner Donna Walker e-mailed marketing materials to Williams to share with his subordinates at the state agency. Williams wrote back, "I'll share Sire info with our team at SBA.''

The information made its way to James Treanor, the SBA senior investment officer.

Treanor and Walker declined comment. Reis did not return messages.

The SBA said Sire was not and is not being considered for an investment.

Williams would not discuss his personal investment in Sire or comment on discussions at the SBA about the fund. He would not say if his visit to see Reis and his Sire associates was personal or state business, or both.


Besides investing pension fund money, the SBA invests $25 billion more of public funds on behalf of dozens of state-funded organizations and hundreds of towns and school districts across Florida.

Late in 2007, some of the local governments began yanking billions from the SBA because they worried they were losing money on risky, tainted securities. The SBA froze the local government fund, and SBA executive director Coleman Stipanovich quit under pressure.

The man in charge of SBA investment policy, James Francis, stayed on the job and helped manage the job search for a new SBA director that resulted in the hiring of Williams. He and Francis had served together as legislative aides in Tallahassee in the late 1970s.

Francis retired in June 2008 and came back to the SBA as a consultant before Williams took charge. The interim SBA director gave Francis' new firm, EIM Consulting, a six-month contract, not to exceed $50,000. His tasks included trying to improve the local government fund.

On Jan. 6, 2009, with Francis' consulting contract about to expire, Williams asked: "Do you want to renew your contract (with) SBA or are you hanging up your guns?''

Francis: "I would be plumb delighted to renew!''

Williams: "Great, thanks. I'll ask legal to prepare an extension.''

Without opening the consulting contract to competing bids, Williams extended Francis' contract for a year — not to exceed $100,000.

In February 2010, without a bid, Williams renewed the contract with Francis for another year.

SBA rules require competitive bids for management consulting deals greater than $50,000 but allow for no-bid contracts to make an "exceptional procurement.''

''No one but Jim could have been responsive to our specific needs,'' SBA spokesman John Kuczwanski said. Awarding the Francis contracts without bids ''align with and adhere to policy,'' Kuczwanski said.

The SBA said it plans to phase out the contract.

Francis declined to comment.


Jan. 6, 2009

James Francis and Ash Williams exchange e-mails about Francis' no-bid contract for his consulting firm, EIM.


Feb. 2, 2009

Tom Strauss pitches his hedge fund, Ramius, to Ash Williams.

Pension agency head says deals based on merits, not pals 07/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 3, 2010 9:36pm]
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