Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried continues to be the lone voice in the Florida Cabinet calling for the state to stake out its position in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
On Monday, Fried said state officials should immediately ensure Florida ceases any business with Russian-backed entities. She made the call in a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and CFO Jimmy Patronis.
“It is imperative that we not only speak out against these attacks on democracy, but that we ensure Florida taxpayer dollars are not propping up the autocratic regime in Russia,” Fried asserted.
“As trustees of the Florida State Board of Administration, I am writing today to urge you to divest Florida from Russian-backed entities in response to the invasion of Ukraine. We must unite as a state, nation, and global community to condemn these actions of war from Vladimir Putin and Russia, and we must send a strong message that we will not allow aggressions against democracy anywhere. Our state should immediately begin to cancel state contracts with Russian businesses and divest from Russian firms and other entities that have business ties to the country.”
Her letter continued, stating, “Florida is a well-known hub for Russian investments, and we should do everything in our power to prevent our state’s financial activity from, directly or indirectly, aiding Russia as it wages unprovoked war against Ukraine. We must review our state purchases and our investments, including investments with any company or institution that is on a list of Russian-headquartered entities and make changes as necessary. Several other states, including Colorado and New York, have severed economic ties with Russia in recent days.”
The letter did not specify what, if any, investments Florida has in Russian-backed entities from which the state could divest.
The State Board of Administration communications director Dennis MacKee offered a statement that filled in some detail as to the state’s exposure to Russia: “Of our $195 billion in assets, we currently hold approximately $300 million in Russian-domiciled investments. As a matter of policy, we don’t make forward-looking statements regarding investment decisions of any kind. However, we do comply with applicable laws and any sanctions required by the U.S. government. We are in discussions with our managers and in the process of evaluating the ever-evolving regulatory and economic landscape regarding any holdings in Russia and will adjust our holdings accordingly.”
Moody’s office noted that review was happening already, while others offered longer responses to Fried.
The Governor’s Office said Fried’s letter lacked specifics.
“I would just add a word of caution that precision is important in situations like this, and the letter lacks necessary clarity. Commissioner Fried claims ‘Florida is a well-known hub for Russian investments’ but does not quantify that or provide specific examples of what she means by ‘Russian investments.’ To the extent Russian citizens purchase South Florida real estate, for example, that has nothing to do with the state of Florida investing in or divesting from ‘a list of Russian-headquartered entities,’ but Fried links these two assertions as though there is a logical connection between them,” asserted Christina Pushaw, press secretary for DeSantis.
Pushaw also questioned the “list of Russian-headquartered entities” to which Fried referred. “Is she referring to lists of sanctioned foreign entities and individuals created by the relevant federal institutions, such as the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC)?”
Pushaw also notes “not all Russians would be subject to U.S. sanctions for the invasion of Ukraine.”
“Those sanctions are meant to target specific Russian officials and oligarchs who are known to be close to Putin and play a role in supporting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. That certainly doesn’t include all Russian investors in the U.S.,” Pushaw noted.
A spokesperson for the CFO’s office added: “There is a flurry of action by the federal government taking place with respect to Ukraine and the SBA is keeping the Trustees updated on how sanctions against Russia may affect any investments. The CFO believes that Putin is an evil dictator and that he will reap what he sows. The CFO also believes that when buildings are being bombed, families are being killed, the international geopolitical order is being disrupted, and a humanitarian crisis is unfolding before our very eyes, now may not be the right time for clever hot takes.”
Fried’s camp is not backing down despite Republican pushback.
“The Commissioner of Agriculture does not sit on the SBA and therefore we are not the custodians of those records. That is why she is calling on the SBA trustees to review its investments and state contracts and act swiftly to divest or cancel those,” Fried’s office countered.
Fried’s letter is the latest in a series of strong foreign policy positions amid the ongoing Russian invasion.
The Commissioner had previously issued a proclamation of support for Ukraine. Fried’s Democratic Primary opponent, Rep. Charlie Crist, also has expressed strong support for Ukraine. Crist also slammed DeSantis Friday for silence on the matter.
Gov. DeSantis and CFO Patronis have said little, if anything, publicly about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moody has offered prayerful support.
On Thursday, Moody tweeted, “Innocent lives have been taken and Ukrainian civilians, including children, are trying to flee their homes that Russia turned into a war zone overnight. America must always stand for freedom. Please pray for #Ukraine and the civilians caught in the crossfire.”
Scott Powers of Florida Politics contributed to this report.