Charging a fortune for public records is a clear attempt to evade Florida's sunshine laws and conceal public business from public view. That seems to be the motivation behind an invoice sent to state Sen. Mike Fasano for more than $10,000 for public records from Ash Williams, executive director of the state agency that manages $145 billion in Florida pension and other public funds. Williams has repeatedly resisted public records requests over a questionable hedge fund investment, and this whopping invoice to the New Port Richey Republican is another attempt to avoid public scrutiny. The Legislature should not sit still for this, and Williams' bosses — Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater — have to choose between supporting him or the public's right to know.
As head of the State Board of Administration, Williams invests money for hundreds of cities, counties and school districts and 1 million current and former public employees. He is expected to be accountable, not just to the board's trustees — Scott, Bondi and Atwater — but to the public. Yet Williams has repeatedly rebuffed efforts by the St. Petersburg Times and Fasano to see public documents relating to a $125 million investment in a hedge fund. Williams had former business ties to a top executive at an associated fund.
The invoice for $10,750.13 includes 300 hours of a paralegal's work at $22.84 per hour; 50 hours of a lawyer's work at $52.40 per hour; as well as $450 for 3,000 photocopies and so on. Fasano says in his 17 years in the Legislature he has never been asked to pay for a public record. He calls it a terrible precedent that defies good government principles. If legislators have to pay for state documents, it would shift power to the executive branch, giving agencies the green light to stiff-arm legislative requests by pricing them out of reach.
In the letter with the invoice, Williams suggested that he and Fasano talk on the phone, where "any questions" Fasano had would be answered. It's interesting that information could be communicated orally and quickly, but records that Fasano might share with the media or the public would "take months" of work and cost a fortune to retrieve.
Florida public records laws are intended to give Floridians access to the workings of their government. Fees charged for gathering and copying documents must be reasonable and no more than the actual agency costs. Agencies can't bill more than the hourly rate of the lowest paid person who can fulfill the request, and the request must be filled within a reasonable time period. The invoice sent Fasano appears to be a clear violation of those requirements.
Just as disappointing as Williams' evasion of the law is the lack of interest among Scott, Bondi and Atwater. They should demanding that Williams comply with Fasano's request for public documents and follow the public records laws, not acquiescing to his secrecy.