Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam get it: Charging exorbitant sums for public records undermines democracy and violates Florida's tradition of open government. The only question is why Gov. Rick Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater — who both pledged on the campaign trail alongside Bondi to demand more transparency in how the state invests its pension fund — aren't similarly upset with State Board of Administration executive director Ash Williams.
Williams continued Tuesday to defend the $10,750.13 invoice he sent state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, after the senator sought records detailing the agency's recent decision to invest $125 million in a hedge fund called Starboard Value and Opportunity, a spinoff of Ramius LLC. Williams had business ties to a top executive at an associated fund, though he claims there is nothing untoward. Yet without access to the records, his account cannot be independently verified. Fasano sought the records after conferring with the St. Petersburg Times, whose records request was rebuffed last year because the deal was not yet complete.
Williams, whose agency oversees $145 billion in investments for the state pension and other funds, continues to assert his only interest in delivering such an outrageous invoice to Fasano was to cover the agency's cost: It would take a paralegal more than seven weeks to properly redact the documents Fasano was seeking to ensure no proprietary information was released, as required by public records exemptions.
Both Bondi and Putnam seemed to appreciate the far broader consequence of making records requests cost-prohibitive, ultimately removing a key check on government. While Putnam is a member of the state Cabinet, he is not one of the three SBA trustees, but that didn't stop him from asking questions Tuesday. And Bondi challenged the basic math. The invoice, Bondi said, was "indefensible."
Scott and Atwater sounded more interested in providing cover for Williams, asking softball questions about all the various reports the agency posts online and the importance of protecting the business secrets of investment partners. The pair gave lip service to "transparency in government," but voiced no objection to Williams' effort to obstruct the release of information in the public interest.
Atwater ultimately seemed to support a behind-closed-doors solution in which Fasano or any other legislator would have access to all the records but swear to not release any details that fall under public records exemptions. Putnam, playing from the sidelines, wisely called the bluff: So can anyone have access to this information or is it just a privilege of the Legislature? Bondi delivered the answer: Such a plan would bar public access.
The intent of Florida's open records law is simple. In a democracy, the taxpaying public must have the means to hold their government to account and examine what it is doing on the public's behalf. Scott, Atwater and Bondi all promised on the campaign trail to increase transparency at the SBA so the public would have more confidence in how its dollars are being invested. Bondi and Putnam are for openness; Scott and Atwater are backing secrecy.