At their board meeting last week, Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System voted to hire law firm Blank Rome to help determine if it should sue Aon, an investment consultant the pension fund hired.
The potential suit concerns a calculation error Aon made that caused PSERS to inaccurately report its returns in December 2020. While initially the nine-year performance figure was reported to be 6.38%, a correction showed that it was in fact lower, and thus below the threshold needed to prevent increased contributions. When the miscalculation was revealed in March 2021, the pension fund’s beneficiaries were forced to increase their payments.
PSERS paid Aon $7.2 million for investment advice over the course of almost a decade. Currently, Aon is still employed by PSERS. Both the FBI and the SEC are investigating the miscalculation. PSERS is also under investigation for gifts given by Wall Street firms to PSERS employees.
These findings suggest that PSERS is not likely to achieve even a 6 percent average return over the next 10-15 years—much less its current assumed return of 7 percent. This suggests there is a high probability that the public pension plan’s unfunded liabilities could get worse, not better, in the near-to-mid term. This underperformance—relative to the plan’s own return rate assumptions—will make the system’s long-term solvency challenges even larger.
This Monday, the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) finally released its long-awaited internal investigation into the pension fund’s misreporting of December 2020 investment return results and allegations that staff accepted gifts that would have been considered conflicts of interest. While the investigation was completed more than two months ago, the publication of the findings had been delayed multiple times.
The report was released after a series of closed-door board meetings that took place that same day. During those meetings, representatives from the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, which had conducted the investigation, briefed the board on the findings.
Claire Rauscher, a lawyer from Womble, told the board that, as of now, there was no evidence of criminal conduct, but some important pieces of evidence remain missing. Aon Consulting, a Chicago company that helped PSERS calculate its inaccurate return results, refused to cooperate in the investigation. Because Womble Bond Dickinson is a private law firm, it has no subpoena power to force Aon to comply.
Members of the board of Pennsylvania’s $73 billion school pension fund won’t be required to sign nondisclosure agreements before hearing on Monday the long-awaited findings of an internal investigation into the mammoth plan.
The Public School Employees’ Retirement System is still asking the board to sign the secrecy pacts but is not insisting upon it, the plan’s spokesperson says. Her statement clarified a previous controversial email from the board’s chairman, who asked members to sign NDAs without saying they had the option to refuse.
A law firm is to unveil the results of its investigation at a closed-door session for the PSERS board Monday morning. But the board has yet to decide whether, how soon and how completely those findings will be made public after the meeting.
Author(s): ANGELA COULOUMBIS, JOSEPH N. DISTEFANO AND CRAIG R. MCCOY
State lawmakers met with officials of Pennsylvania’s public pension funds Thursday to vet reform measures that have been introduced to increase transparency and oversight of the pension system.
The measures are working their way through the legislative process and could be considered for passage this year. Thursday’s hearing offered participants a chance to voice concerns or probe for costs and conflicts that could derail the measures.
Among the proposals reviewed by pension officials and legislators was a bill that would force the funds to more closely track more than $1 billion of annual investment manager fees, and profit-sharing and other money-management costs. The measure would also require video copies of hours-long board meetings to be made publicly available — online for three years, and then by request.
Leaders of Pennsylvania’s beleaguered teachers’ pension fund are requesting that board members sign oaths of secrecy before receiving a critical update on the botched investment calculation scandal that has led to multiple federal investigations.
On Thursday morning, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System board told members in an email that they must sign a yet-to-be-drafted non-disclosure agreement to participate in a closed-door meeting later this month.
The meeting, scheduled for Jan. 31, is pivotal: Board members are poised to be presented with the findings of a taxpayer-funded inquiry into an investment calculation mistake in late 2020 that wrongly spared teachers a potential hike in their pension payments, leaving taxpayers to make up the difference over time. The calculation was later fixed, and teacher payments increased.
Two top officials at Pennsylvania’s largest pension fund are retiring amid a federal investigation and calls by some board members for their ouster.
The board of Pennsylvania’s $64 billion Public School Employees’ Retirement System voted Thursday to approve resolutions accepting the retirement of Glen Grell, the executive director, and Jim Grossman, the chief investment officer. Board members approved plans for both men to stay on in temporary advisory positions and authorized the board chair to begin a search for their replacements.
The fund has been racked by turmoil since board members learned in March that a report of investment returns was too high. The accurate figure was low enough to trigger an increase in payments from employees that the plan serves. Investigations conducted by the fund haven’t found wrongdoing on the part of investment staff.
The board said in April that it had hired law firms to investigate the miscalculation and to respond to a federal grand jury subpoena requesting documents. The pension declined to comment on what information the grand jury is seeking.
Private equity investments lack transparency and are difficult to value. As opposed to publicly traded securities, limited partnerships used by private equity managers can’t provide frequent performance updates and, as a result, advise stakeholders after the end of each fiscal year. This leads to a lag in reporting important details. Moreover, shares of companies owned by private equity funds are not publicly traded, meaning that their values can only be estimated, which is subject to potential bias. Private equity firms are also not obligated by the law to publish their lists of assets in accordance with Securities and Exchange Commission rules. While this information can be found on Bloomberg Professional Terminal, it is not available to the general public. This lack of transparency should be concerning to employees and retirees who rely on these funds and taxpayers who contribute to them.
For the Pennsylvania teacher system, the management fees associated with private equity investments that the plan had to pay over the past four years ($4.3 billion) are more than the total amount members paid into the plan during the same time ($4.2 billion). The pension plan recently announced that member contributions will have to be raised going forward because of long-term investment results below the plan’s benchmark. As a point of comparison, the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System, which has double the assets of PSERS, reported 36% less in total investment fees and expenses than PSERS.
A $66 billion Pennsylvania state pension fund under scrutiny for errors in calculating investment returns has been asked by securities regulators to turn over records related to possible gifts exchanges with dozens of Wall Street firms, according to a subpoena reviewed by Bloomberg.
SEC Enforcement Division Senior Counsel Heidi Mitza asked that the pension fund supply “all Documents and Communications Concerning any compensation, remuneration, money, gifts, gratuities, trips or anything of any value” exchanged between representatives of investment managers, advisers, and consultants and any representatives of PSERS or the state, according to the subpoena.
The calculation error that upended the state’s largest pension fund has been traced back to a single month in 2015, according to an investigation from Spotlight PA.
The discovery came to light in a trove of documents obtained by reporters that found a tiny discrepancy that boosted the $64 billion Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) by a third of a percentage point in April of that year.
The consultant firm hired to review PSERS’ investment returns between 2011 and 2020, ACA Compliance Group, performed limited checks that skipped over the month in question, according to the report. The company that crunched the actual numbers, Aon, blamed the discrepancy on a data entry error.
No matter the fault, the miscalculation unraveled PSERS’ rate of return, dropping it from just above the mandated 6.36% threshold to prevent a contribution increase down to 6.34%. Now, about 100,000 workers who joined the system in 2011 or later will pay more beginning on July 1.
The board of trustees overseeing the $62 billion Pennsylvania School Employees Retirement System has spent more than $1 million so far to investigate and contain fallout from an inaccurate report on investment results delivered late last year. The report led to a mistaken conclusion that no increase in employee pension contributions would be needed this year.
The system’s trustees have hired batteries of lawyers since the mistake was revealed. The board said in April that it had hired law firms to conduct an investigation into the miscalculation and to respond to a federal grand jury subpoena requesting documents. It couldn’t be determined whether the subpoena relates to the miscalculation.
However, in March the pension system said that the actual nine-year return came to 6.34%, triggering an increase in employee pension contributions reportedly affecting some 100,000 workers whose contributions will increase by 0.50% to 0.75% starting July 1. For instance, a school worker who earns about $45,000 annually would have roughly $8.65 withheld from each biweekly paycheck, the system’s website explains.
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.