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A Times Editorial

Cutting corners with billions at stake

With a few clicks of a computer mouse, employers can easily learn more about job applicants, test the accuracy of their resumes and evaluate the truthfulness of their answers. But that was too much work for state officials involved in researching lawyers competing to represent the state pension fund. Their cursory review resulted in some embarrassing lapses, and the governor and Cabinet ought to demand better on behalf of Florida taxpayers.

As Times staff writer Kris Hundley reported last week, the vetting of candidates for the pension fund's legal work was less than thorough. Among the issues officials missed by only calling references and taking the firms' claims as gospel:

• An anonymous letter revealed tax problems and other issues at the top-ranked firm that easily could have been found in news accounts. That firm then dropped out.

• The second-ranked firm portrayed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling as a win for its side when a Google search would have revealed it actually lost.

• Another finalist took credit for a securities case that actually had been dismissed, which could have been discovered by checking the federal court system's Web site.

Better background checks than this are routinely performed when hiring child care workers, painting contractors and even reporters. Yet when the state selects lawyers to represent a pension fund worth more than $112 billion in class-action lawsuits, a few phone calls to hand-picked references were enough. This is the kind of sloppy work that gives government a bad name.

The State Board of Administration, composed of the governor and two Cabinet members, and the pension fund have had their share of problems in the last two years. They include a lack of oversight, a change in the top SBA administrative post, the purchase of risky assets and the declining values of the fund during the recession. Against that backdrop, superficial background checks on well-established law firms might not seem like a big deal. But it speaks to the culture of the SBA and a frustrating habit of cutting corners. The next time, the consequences of such sloppiness could be far worse than embarrassment.

Cutting corners with billions at stake 03/07/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 8, 2010 12:09am]
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