By Lee Williams
Ashbel C. “Ash” Williams Jr., has the financial wellbeing of Florida’s public employees in his hands.
Williams serves as executive director and chief investment officer of the Florida State Board of Administration in Tallahassee, which oversees more than $250 billion in assets, including the nearly $2 billion Florida Retirement System – the state’s public employee pension fund.
On Nov. 14, 2018, for reasons known only to him, Williams signed an agreement known as the Principles for a Responsible Civilian Firearms Industry, on behalf of the State of Florida. In fact, Florida was one of the first states to sign up with the group, and one of Williams’ own staffers helped draft the document.
The Principles for a Responsible Civilian Firearms Industry is an agreement between private and public pension fund managers from California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Oregon, San Francisco and Florida.
According to its website, the “Principles” describes itself as a “framework to advance a responsible civilian firearms industry in the United States of America.”
“We believe in the rule of law and respect the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As asset owners and asset managers, we have a duty to our beneficiaries who depend on us for financial security; such obligations compel us to assume responsibility for reducing risks that we and our beneficiaries face if and when we hold a financial interest in both private and public firearms related enterprises,” the website states. “We believe that enterprises involved in the manufacturing, distribution, sale and enforcement of regulations of the firearms industry are well positioned to support pragmatic transparency and safety measures that contribute to the responsible use of firearms.”
The Principles were conceived and written by a Harvard Fellow, the Chief Investment officer of California’s pension fund, CalSTRS, and Michael McCauley, who is a senior officer in Williams’ State Board of Administration.
Despite its claims of support for the Second Amendment, the Principles are decidedly anti-gun.
“Collectively, we investors are supportive of the following five broad principles. We call on companies within the civilian firearms industry to publicly demonstrate and publish their compliance with each of these principles, failing which, we will consider using all tools available to us as investors to mitigate these risks,” the document states.
- Principle 1: Manufacturers should support, advance and integrate the development of technology designed to make civilian firearms safer, more secure, and easier to trace.
- Principle 2: Manufacturers should adopt and follow responsible business practices that establish and enforce responsible dealer standards and promote training and education programs for owners designed around firearms safety.
- Principle 3: Civilian firearms distributors, dealers, and retailers should establish, promote, and follow best practices to ensure that no firearm is sold without a completed background check in order to prevent sales to persons prohibited from buying firearms or those too dangerous to possess firearms.
- Principle 4: Civilian firearms distributors, dealers, and retailers should educate and train their employees to better recognize and effectively monitor irregularities at the point of sale, to record all firearm sales, to audit firearms inventory on a regular basis, and to proactively assist law enforcement.
- Principle 5: Participants in the civilian firearms industry should work collaboratively, communicate, and engage with the signatories of these Principles to design, adopt, and disclose measures and metrics demonstrating both best practices and their commitment to promoting these Principles.
In other words, the signatories want “Smart guns,” micro-stamping, manufacturer oversight of gun dealers, universal background checks, mandatory dealer training, and mandatory recording, reporting and other “metrics” from everyone involved in the “civilian firearms industry.” In addition, Principle 3 would allow a government agency to slow down, stall or stop the background check process to discourage firearm sales.
There was little fanfare in 2018 to announce the signing of the agreement, other than one short story written by the News Service of Florida.
Williams did not return calls, emails or messages left with his staff seeking his comments for this story, but in 2018, he told the News Service of Florida he signed the agreement to “raise awareness of issues that could impact the value of investments in the firearms industry.”
“We’re not telling anybody, any private company, exactly what they should be doing. Our concern is motivated very simply by one thing, as fiduciaries anything that poses a risk to the value of the assets that we own on behalf of our beneficiaries, we want to make sure we’re managing it properly,” Williams said in an interview with The News Service of Florida, for their story titled: “Florida’s pension fund urges guns manufacturers to act responsibly.”
The charade didn’t last too long.
California’s pension fund officials were the first to admit the group’s real goals and intent.
According to a story published June 10 by The National Review, “CalSTRS announced that it would use its financial heft to pressure retailers anywhere in the country to stop selling guns that are banned in California – overriding the laws of other states.”
Williams must have known that aligning gun-friendly Florida with a group of anti-gun investors, from California no less, could have repercussions that would not be career enhancing, so he sent a letter to then-Gov. Rick Scott and other state officials on Nov. 13, 2018, reminding them he was going to sign the agreement the very next day, although the agreement was the second topic in the letter.
The five principles, Williams wrote, “are intended to provide guidance for investors to drive improved and cohesive engagement with companies involved in manufacturing, distributing, selling or regulating civilian firearms. The five Principles serve as a conversation starter for investors to be active participants in protecting and enhancing long-term portfolio values by ensuring investment risks associated within the industry are being appropriately addressed.”
It is not known why Rick Scott didn’t stop Williams from signing the anti-gun agreement after he read the letter. But eight months before Williams signed the agreement, Scott – who was on track to become Florida’s most gun-friendly governor – signed the “Parkland Bill,” which is the most sweeping anti-gun bill in the history of the state of Florida.
Scott declined to comment for this story, but his communications director, McKinley Lewis, sent a written statement, which dodges the issue:
“Senator Rick Scott has always been and continues to be an unapologetic champion of the 2nd Amendment and Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms. During his time as Governor, Senator Scott strongly resisted calls from the anti-gun lobby to take fiscally irresponsible and rash actions like divesting from firearms manufacturers. The State of Florida’s investment decisions and strategy fall under the purview of the State Board of Administration (SBA) – not the Executive Office of the Governor – and you would need to ask the SBA about its past actions.”
Last month, word of the agreement reached Marion Hammer, Florida’s powerful lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. It was brought to her attention by Rep. Paul Renner, who questioned how and why it had happened.
Hammer, who’s a former NRA president and current board member, began making inquiries about the agreement, which was still in effect, with various offices within state government.
“This program allows too much discretion to non-elected, non-accountable staff level persons who can deliberately circumvent the legal rights and constitutional rights of law-abiding people,” Hammer wrote in an email to Susan Miller, Deputy Chief of Staff of Florida’s Department of Financial Services.
“Parkland preceded Florida’s joining of this coalition of pension funds and investment companies who adopted this set of principles. Clearly, Parkland happened because government agencies and entities failed to do their jobs and thereby allowed a disqualified person – known to be mentally defective and evil – to purchase a firearm,” Hammer wrote. “Their failure to act allowed a person who was disqualified to purchase a gun, despite existing laws in place to prevent him from doing so. This monster was cleared by FDLE to purchase a gun because none of the government agencies who should have protected the public, bothered to formally identify him as a danger.”
Hammer raised the point that the agreement may violate Florida’s powerful preemption statute, which only allows the legislature to regulate firearms in the state. Penalties for any government official who violates the preemption statute can include thousands of dollars in fines – which the official must pay personally – and removal from office.
“The bottom line is that the Florida State Board of Administration has no business joining a coalition of investors who attempt to regulate firearms. I would argue that Florida’s preemption law, F.S. 790.33, makes it clear that any regulation or attempted regulation of firearms is only allowed by the Legislature. It is therefore possible that signing onto this program is a violation of state law,” she wrote.
Hammer’s actions prompted Kent Perez, Williams’ deputy executive director, to send out an email to his staff containing talking points they should use in case they got a call.
“In an effort to be of assistance in any communications you may have received from the NRA or Marion Hammer, we have attached factual information with regard to Florida’s participation in the Principles for a Responsible Civilian Firearms Industry which began in August of 2018,” Perez wrote.
“In the aftermath of the many active shooter incidents in 2018, the firearms industry and firearms sales came under scrutiny by the media and the marketplace as a whole. Investors who sought to protect the value of their investments including state pension funds engaged in a collaborative effort to protect asset valuations and increase safety awareness. Florida participated in this exchange and ultimately signed on to a set of firearm principles on November 14th of 2018,” Perez wrote.
He parroted the words his boss used three years earlier:
“As Ash stated to the press, the agreement carries no mandates for gun-related companies but was designed to raise awareness of issues that could impact the value of investments in the firearms industry. As fiduciaries we want to make sure we are managing properly anything that poses a risk to the value of the assets that we own on behalf of our beneficiaries.”
Word of the agreement eventually reached Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer and a Cabinet member.
Patronis was not amused, and in a scathing email he ordered Williams to withdraw Florida from the agreement.
“Based on its existing participants that include investment entities in California, Connecticut, Maryland, and Oregon – I am uncomfortable with the state of Florida being part of any organization with states that are openly hostile towards the Second Amendment,” Patronis wrote.
“I also do not see the value in being a signatory. To my knowledge, the SBA has a competent staff that can conduct their own research into whether a particular investment is a good or bad investment for the Trustees. Let’s not delegate our judgement on whether to invest in a firearms business based on a third party created “framework” that originated in California, of all places.”
Patronis ordered more than just withdrawing from the agreement.
“I would request your team examine whether there are opportunities to invest into more firearms businesses. Based on the materials I have researched in the public domain; it appears there is high demand for both guns and ammunition. To the degree Florida can support these businesses and provide solid returns for the Florida Retirement System – I would support increased investments in this industry.”
On August 12, Williams sent a letter to the head of the investor group that signed the agreement, Christopher Ailman, the chief investment officer of the California State Teachers’ Retirement system:
Dear Mr. Ailman:
In November of 2018, we signed on to the Principles for a Responsible Civilian Firearms Industry (the “Principles”) as a way to engage with firearms companies regarding matters that affect the economic interests of shareholders, including the Florida Retirement System (FRS).
The Principles were intentionally drafted not to be prescriptive and to explicitly recognize the Second Amendment: “We believe in the rule of law and respect the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” Each signatory retained the flexibility to serve their fiduciary duty as they deemed prudent.
Accordingly, please withdraw Florida as a signatory to the Principles.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation is the trade association of the firearms industry.
“This is not the first time the firearm industry has seen a push by activist investors to sway policy by means outside of the lawmaking process. The bottom line is that investors have a fiduciary responsibility to make sound investments on behalf of their shareholders and these practices to force gun control through financial pressures doesn’t meet that responsibility, said Mark Oliva, the NSSF’s director of public affairs. “These demands are ill-informed.”
He pointed out that the industry has taken massive steps – such as the Real Solutions campaign to keep firearms out of the hands of prohibited persons.
“The firearm industry was responsible to pushing the FIX NICS Act, named after the industry’s Fix NICS campaign, to change the law to ensure states and federal agencies submit all disqualifying criminal and adjudicated mental health records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). All firearms sold at retail are transferred with a completed background check form and verification from the FBI’s NICS. That is law. The firearm industry works actively with the ATF for the Don’t Lie for the Other Guy campaign to detect and deter illegal straw purchases. Lastly, firearms produced today are made to the highest standards of reliability and produced within the regulations governed by the law and ATF regulations,” Oliva said.
“Calls by activist investors like these are misinformed or willfully ignorant of the voluntary steps taken by the firearms industry to works closely with law enforcement to ensure firearms are not criminally misused. Manufacturers promote responsible firearm ownership and law-abiding gun owners are not the concern. Criminal activity is and instead of tackling the hard work of addressing crime, these activist investors insist on using money from other people’s investments to drive their antigun political agenda,” Oliva said.
Eight days after he withdrew Florida from the agreement, Ash Williams announced his retirement from the Florida State Board of Administration, a position he has held since 2008.
“Mr. Williams was enrolled in a deferred retirement program and his retirement is a result of the requirements of the program. While Mr. Williams is considering future opportunities following his departure, he is holding off on discussions with financial firms at this time due to potential conflicts of interest with the state board,” SBA spokesman John Kuczwanski said in a statement.
Williams’ retirement takes effect Sept. 30.
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This story is part of the Second Amendment Foundation’s Investigative Journalism Project and is published here with their permission.