Florida pension chief Ash Williams says allegations that he used his public position to do favors for friends or business associates are false.
In response to articles in the St. Petersburg Times, Williams told his bosses who oversee the State Board of Administration — Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater — that he didn't even know principals of a Miami mortgage company before he helped the firm win a $100 million pension investment deal.
Williams said he met one of the principals of Bayview Financial only after his staff had begun their due diligence; he said the agency's investment procedures were followed; and he said his own role was properly limited to "oversight, not intervention.''
"I did not intervene on Bayview's behalf, I did not have an improper relationship with Bayview or its principals and our rigorous procedures were followed,'' Williams wrote his new bosses.
The SBA manages $152 billion of public money for more than 1 million current and future retirees and hundreds of state and local government agencies.
Williams, 56, led the SBA from 1991 to 1996, left for Wall Street and returned to lead the SBA again in October 2008. Most of his time in the private sector, almost a decade, was at Fir Tree Partners, a New York City hedge fund firm where Williams was managing director of investor relations.
Two of Bayview's principals, David Ertel and David Quint, also were investors at Fir Tree. A Fir Tree executive, Andrew Fredman, suggested that Williams consider a deal with Ertel and Quint's Bayview.
The Times reported that Bayview, which seeks to profit from the mortgage meltdown and homeowners facing foreclosure, had made multiple efforts to land business with the SBA. But documents show the agency's professional staff deflected the overtures from two Bayview affiliates until Williams received an e-mail from Fredman, the executive from his old firm who was a close friend of Bayview's principals.
Within weeks, Williams had invited SBA staff to a meeting with Bayview — and a risky $100 million pension fund investment was in the works.
Williams defended himself in an unsigned attachment to a letter he sent the SBA trustees dated Jan. 5. "I have attached a short assessment which clearly refutes the most egregious allegations regarding the Bayview investment,'' he wrote the trustees.
The attachment says Williams did not know Ertel or Quint prior to making the deal with Bayview.
In followup questions this week, the Times asked how that squared with his own e-mails at the time in which he said Ertel and Quint "need no introduction!'' and that they are "very smart players'' and experts in the mortgage field.
Williams declined to answer.
The two-page "assessment'' Williams provided his bosses said his role was simply to act "in an oversight capacity.''
It said the newspaper left out part of a question that showed the Times knew it was Williams' top lieutenant and staff, not him, that made Bayview a priority and took action on behalf of the firm. Williams called the omission a deliberate effort to hide that all he did was agree with his subordinates and didn't intervene for the company.
Williams also rejected the Times' characterization of Bayview's founder, Ertel, as an old business buddy. He said a reporter called his former Fir Tree associate, Fredman, a friend and investor in Bayview.
Fredman and Williams exchanged e-mails about a family death, a family marriage and having dinner together, and a Bayview representative said Fredman was invested in a Bayview fund.
The SBA said a detailed timeline shows the agency followed its "established procedures'' and did a thorough review in approving the Bayview deal.
A Clearwater activist, meantime, has filed a complaint against Williams with the state Ethics Commission.
David A. Plyer, a retired engineer who has filed complaints against several public officials, says Williams violated a state statute that prohibits public officials from using their position to gain a special benefit for themselves or others.
"First, he's looking out not for his own money but for people who work for the citizens,'' said Plyer, who based his complaint on the Times' stories. "Then he's dabbling with it in a high-risk venture. His own people want to stay away from that company and then he gets an e-mail from one of his pals and oops, a deal is on.
"There was something about that seemed wrong,'' Plyer said.
The Ethics Commission does not comment on complaints, many of which end up dismissed.
Williams said in a statement that the complaint was based on "information that has been publicly refuted. I look forward to cooperating fully and openly with the (ethics) commission.''