Ash Williams, the chief investment officer for Florida's pension fund and other accounts, oversees $134 billion and is one of the most powerful people in state government. Yet the executive director of the State Board of Administration does not publicly disclose potential conflicts of interest when he invests public money in private companies run by friends or fellow investors. Williams' actions reflect the insular Wall Street culture from which he came, but such arrogance and secrecy has no place in his public job. His bosses — Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink — should demand additional disclosure and other steps to avoid real or perceived conflicts or risk further eroding the public's trust.
St. Petersburg Times staff writer Sydney P. Freedberg detailed last Sunday how Williams played a key role in pursuing a $100 million investment in Bayview Asset Management shortly after joining the SBA in 2008. Bayview is a Miami fund that profits from buying underperforming mortgages from banks. But Williams' connections were never publicly disclosed, and he approved the investment. He was encouraged to look at Bayview by an executive at Fir Tree Partners, a New York investment firm where Williams worked just before joining the SBA. Williams also is a longtime investor in three Fir Tree hedge funds. Bayview's officers also invest with Fir Tree.
All of this looks terribly cozy. Williams told the Times editorial board he violated no public trust and says the SBA staff began tracking Bayview in the months before his arrival, after Blackstone Group, a prominent private equity firm, announced it was planning a large stake in Bayview. He said he knows of no way he or Fir Tree would benefit from a Bayview contract with the state. He said he believed Bayview was a sound investment for the SBA, but not because a former colleague encouraged him to pursue it. He took a similar position regarding two other SBA contracts or potential deals where Freedberg reported he had a personal connection.
Wall Street experience is an obvious asset in leading one of the nation's largest public pension funds. But the manager of a public fund should be more transparent in his professional relationships and personal finances, and the state should require it.
Williams apparently has complied with Florida's financial disclosure rules by listing the Fir Tree hedge funds on his annual disclosure form. And he must report the name and amount of new investments he makes while serving as the SBA's executive director. But that still leaves too much secrecy around Williams' finances and relationships that could be conflicts of interest. Williams has never listed how much his Fir Tree shares and those in other private funds are worth and refuses to voluntarily disclose the information. There is no way to know the funds' holdings, his co-investors or whether he holds a sizeable portion of the funds. As former bank regulator and University of Missouri professor William K. Black told Freedberg: "There is no way for the citizens of Florida to know whether an investment is really being done in the interest of Florida or to benefit the fund manager or his cronies.''
Williams said last week he might have recused himself from the Bayview discussions had he realized how it could be perceived. That would be one option to reveal a real or perceived conflict. A more pragmatic one would be more transparency about relationships and a clearer wall between Williams' personal finances and his public job.
This is not a new issue. After 2006 Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher was found to have traded insurance stocks while he was insurance commissioner, some legislators pushed an unsuccessful bill that would have required all statewide elected officials to place their assets in a blind trust. Chief Financial Officer Sink set up such a trust after 2006 election, though she failed to fully disclose all the details of what assets she placed in the fund.
Now Sink, along with Crist and McCollum, should consider requiring the SBA director to put his personal finances into a blind trust. At the very least, they should demand Williams be more transparent about when his financial ties intersect with his professional ones. The current system is wholly insufficient. There is no way for the public to ascertain if its interests, and no one else's, are being served in multimillion-dollar deals with public money.