Perhaps it's not surprising that, amid the 2006 bull market, the entire Legislature was hoodwinked into surrendering one of Florida's core values: transparency in government. That was the year lawmakers agreed to expand public records exemptions to shield the state's private equity investment deals after some firms threatened to not do business with the state's pension fund, one of the largest in the nation. But five years later, Wall Street's credibility is in tatters and lawmakers have a chance to make amends. They should not extend the State Board of Administration's overly broad public records exemption for private investments and let it expire in October under current law.
As Times staff writer Syndey P. Freedberg reported Sunday, the 2006 law that expanded exemptions for private investments has made it impossible for anyone outside the SBA to ascertain key information about its performance. The agency oversees $156 billion in assets belonging to the state pension fund and other state and local government agencies.
The public can't track fees proposed by some law firms, key information from contracts with other vendors or monitor the performance of dozens of private investments worth up to $20 billion. Businesses doing business or seeking business with the agency are allowed to decide for themselves what should be shielded from public view by marking it "proprietary," "confidential" or a "trade secret."
It's now clear the SBA has lost all pretense of using the exemptions judiciously. There were so many redactions in public records requested by the Times as to make them nothing more than scrap paper. One outside consultant's 295-page report of the agency's 130 private equity deals — the exact kind of document the public would rely on for independent analysis of how the investments are performing — had only 17 pages free of redactions. And someone even redacted this pithy comment in a report: "As I often tell my 12-year-old son's basketball team (which I coach), 'don't take three-pointers when the defense is giving you layups.' "
Meanwhile, SBA executive director Ashbel Williams — who is pushing for the exemption extension — continues to miss the point. He contends the public can trust him and his staff to hold these vendors and equity partners to account. But this isn't Williams' money or his staff's. It belongs to the taxpayers of Florida. Now the only question is: Who will stand up for them?
So far, the new SBA board of trustees — Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater — have been a big disappointment. Despite campaigning for their jobs on promises of increasing accountability in the SBA, they haven't seen fit to put it at the top of their agenda. But lawmakers can restore public access by refusing to approve either SB 7174 or HB 7225. By blocking the extension of public records exemptions, the sun can shine again at the SBA.