Subpoenas indicate that the FBI and federal prosecutors are seeking evidence of kickbacks and bribes in an investigation of the $62 billion Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS)’s misstatement of its 2020 investment performance and its real estate investment in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
In December, PSERS’ board of trustees certified the contribution rates for its members. The board was told by its general investment consultant and another firm that the retirement system’s nine-year performance figure was 6.38%, which was just high enough to avoid triggering additional contributions under state law.
The court orders reportedly reveal that the FBI and prosecutors are investigating possible “honest services fraud” and wire fraud. Under a 2010 US Supreme Court ruling, federal prosecutors need proof of illegal payments to seek criminal charges against state officials for not providing honest services, the Inquirer reported.
No one at PSERS, including the executives who received subpoenas, has been accused of any wrongdoing.
And according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, PSERS’ board of trustees has spent more than $1 million and counting in its investigation of the reporting error.
The search for high returns takes many pension funds far and wide, but the Pennsylvania teachers’ fund went farther than most. It invested in trailer park chains, pistachio farms, pay phone systems for prison inmates — and, in a particularly bizarre twist, loans to Kurds trying to carve out their own homeland in northern Iraq.
Now the F.B.I. is on the case, investigating investment practices at the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System, and new questions are emerging about how the fund’s staff and consultants calculated returns.
The error in calculating returns was a tiny one, just four one-hundredths of a percentage point. But it was enough — just barely — to push the fund’s performance over a critical threshold of 6.36 percent that, by law, determines whether certain teachers have to pay more into the fund. The close call raised questions about whether someone had manipulated the numbers and the error wasn’t really an error at all.
“If you can’t change the benefits, and you can’t change the contributions, the only lever left for these people to pull is investment policy — that’s it,” said Kurt Winkelmann, a senior fellow for pension policy design at the University of Minnesota’s Heller-Hurwicz Economics Institute. “And that exposes younger beneficiaries and taxpayers to a lot of risk.”
The $64 billion Pennsylvania Public Schools’ Retirement System made the “emergency” hiring of an outside manager yesterday to take on the duties of chief investment officer James Grossman, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
Seattle-based Verus Investments will now handle “monitoring and oversight of investment” as the embattled pension system deals with “internal and external investigations,” including an FBI probe into its investing, PSERS says.
The fund’s investment of millions of dollars in real estate deals in Harrisburg is under federal investigation, while outside lawyers are looking into an “error” that inflated PSERS’ investment returns.
Officials atop Pennsylvania’s largest public pension system have received subpoenas from federal investigators, although the $64 billion Public School Employees’ Retirement System has yet to publicly discuss the nature or scope of the newly disclosed inquiry.
In addition to giving few details, pension system officials and board members — which includes state lawmakers, two members of Gov. Tom Wolf’s Cabinet and state Treasurer Stacy Garrity — have declined to answer questions publicly about what information federal investigators are seeking.
Garrity told lawmakers at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday that “federal subpoenas have been served on several PSERS management officials.”
PSERS is trying to depict the performance overstatement as an error but its body language says otherwise. It has launched an investigation of its three top staff members and has gone from denying that PSERS has any information that anything criminal had taken place to ducking the question.
The Inquirer described how three of PSERS’ 15 board members voted against a staff effort to say the return numbers were fine after some sort of not fully disclosed brouhaha with an outside consultant.
The “impact on PSERS tax exempt status” is alarming, and it’s frustrating that the article does not probe what the issue might be.
Needless to say, expect more shoes to drop as the FBI keeps digging. A friend who was the DA for Bridgeport, the most corrupt city in Connecticut, said the FBI aren’t the brightest bulbs but are relentless and as a result generally take down their targets.
The probe follows a Daily Poster investigative series detailing how one of Cuomo’s biggest donors, the Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA) — a lobby group that represents hospital systems and nursing home operators — said it “drafted and aggressively advocated for” the corporate immunity provision. Cuomo’s administration quietly inserted the measure into his state’s budget as thousands lay dying from COVID-19 in New York nursing homes.
Critics say that the immunity law removed a key deterrent to corporate malfeasance, and victims and their families were subsequently stripped of their legal rights. Cuomo’s original executive order shielding front line health care workers from lawsuits was widely reported, but not the governor’s separate budget language extending immunity to hospital and nursing home corporations’ executives and board members.
Author(s): David Sirota, Joel Warner, Andrew Perez, Julia Rock
The full scope of the investigation is not immediately clear, but the sources said there was a particular interest in nursing homes, which have been a source of increasing frustration for Cuomo.
Last week, an aide conceded the administration withheld the nursing home death toll from state lawmakers out of fear it would be used against the state by the Trump administration.
The controversy over nursing home deaths has dogged Cuomo for months. At the onset of the pandemic, state health officials directed nursing homes to accept residents recovering from the virus as they were discharged from hospitals.
The directive was rescinded several weeks later, but Cuomo faced criticism that it contributed to a high level of deaths in nursing homes. The governor said he based the decision on federal guidance at the time and insisted staff members, not residents discharged from hospitals, brought coronavirus into nursing homes.
The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn have launched an investigation that is examining, at least in part, the actions of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s coronavirus task force in its handling of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities during the pandemic, the Times Union has learned.
The probe by the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York is apparently in its early stages and is focusing on the work of some of the senior members of the governor’s task force, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter who is not authorized to comment publicly.