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Sorting out the truth in politics

Florida state investment chief says transparency was a big issue for lawmakers in 2011

Facing criticisms about the handling of the state's $130 billion investment portfolio, the executive director and chief investment officer of the State Board of Administration tried to reassure Gov. Rick Scott that everything is fine.

The back-and-forth between SBA executive director Ash Williams and Scott came Tuesday during a meeting of the Cabinet in which Scott asked about transparency in dealing with the investments of about 1 million current and future retirees.

"Well, I think the transparency issue got a great airing the last legislative session. We have, for the most part, full transparency," Williams said in response to Scott's question.

Was that really what happened during the 2011 session?

The annual lawmaking session included lengthy debate on a number of issues. We remember hours of debate about a bill — which failed — that would have eliminated the automatic payroll deduction of union dues for public employees. We remember arguments and public testimony about a bill that passed altering Florida voter laws.

And so on and so on.

But on transparency at the SBA, we searched and found one bill on the topic — HB 7225 (the identical Senate bill was SB 2174).

The bill was filed in order to extend a public records exemption for the SBA that was set to expire. Specifically, it renews a 2006 law giving the SBA an exemption from public records requirements for "proprietary confidential business information." The bill passed the Senate 33-3 and the House 114-1 and was signed into law by Scott.

As far as discussion, the Legislature archives video of committee meetings, as well as regular floor sessions. So by retracing the path of the bill, we were able to watch the entire debate.

Lucky for us, there wasn't a lot.

The bill was first heard in the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability on April 5.

After its introduction, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, asked questions about the records exemption and whether it was necessary. Eventually, Williams responded to Fasano's questions directly in a back-and-forth that lasted about 20 minutes. At one point, Fasano showed heavily redacted SBA documents. "It's all blank, Mr. Chairman. There's nothing. It just goes on and on," Fasano said.

Another senator, Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, also voiced concern during the discussion.

The proposal didn't get a vote that day. It returned before the same committee April 14, when senators discussed the bill for 10 minutes. No one from the public spoke; neither did Williams.

Fasano reiterated his concerns, as did Latvala. Sponsor Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, defended the proposal — saying companies now doing business with the state would walk away if the public records exemption were allowed to expire.

The bill passed 11-2.

On the same day, a House committee heard its version of the same bill. Discussion lasted three minutes and 15 seconds. Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, asked sponsor Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, if there had been concerns over some of the SBA's investments. Patronis didn't answer the question, saying the two could talk later.

The bill passed 17-0.

The bill next appeared on the House floor April 28, where it was read the required second and third times and passed by the full chamber 114-1 in a total of 57 seconds.

The Senate took up the House version of the legislation the next day. The Senate read the bill a second and third time as required, and without any discussion or debate voted 33-3 in favor. Total time on the Senate floor: One minute, 30 seconds.

Overall, the SBA public records exemption was a topic for less than 36 minutes in a public meeting, according to our review of videos from committee hearings and from the floors of the House and Senate.

Of that, about 25 minutes of the discussion came from one senator, Fasano, during a back-and-forth with Williams and a subsequent committee speech.

That brings us back to what Williams said, that "the transparency issue got a great airing the last legislative session."

We're sometimes reluctant to analyze statements that are open to interpretation (what's the definition of "great" in this case?), but we feel confident that someone seeing Williams' statement would come away with an impression that is different from the legislative record. We're not saying it's Williams' fault that the Legislature decided not to speak out on this bill. But we do hold him accountable for his words. We rate his statement False.

The statement

"The (State Board of Administration) transparency issue got a great airing the last legislative session."

SBA executive Ash Williams, Tuesday, in a response to a question from Gov. Rick Scott.

The ruling

We checked the tapes. The issue was considered for a total of 36 minutes during the 2011 session. We're not saying it's Williams' fault that the Legislature decided not to speak out on this bill. But we do hold him accountable for his words. We rate his statement False.

Florida state investment chief says transparency was a big issue for lawmakers in 2011 08/07/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 7, 2011 9:46pm]
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