America’s state and local government pensions invest as much as 40 percent of their assets in secretive, offshore “alternative” hedge, private equity, real estate and venture funds which warn that certain unidentified “mystery investors” pay lower fees, are provided greater information about investment strategies and portfolio holdings, have been granted liquidity preferences and receive superior net performance—all at the expense of America’s public sector workers. How many wealthy Russians are “mystery investors” in these pension deals which, according to an internal FBI document leaked last year, criminals and foreign adversaries regularly use to launder money? Wall Street refuses to say and public pensions have promised not to ask. Ironically, the invasion of Ukraine and calls to dump Russian investments to punish the country are drawing attention to the ugly fact that America’s public pensions have long consented to being kept in the dark by Wall Street, abrogating their duty to monitor and safeguard workers’ retirement savings.
For example, my second investigation of the Rhode Island state pension revealed in 2015 that contrary to the pension’s financial reports, 40 percent of the pension’s investments—not the 25 percent disclosed—had been allocated to secretive alternative investments.
It’s no secret that the FBI suspects that many alternative investment vehicles are widely utilized for money laundering. In 2019, the FBI compiled a report titled “Financial Crime Threat Actors Very Likely Laundering Illicit Proceeds Through Fraudulent Hedge Funds and Private Equity Firms to Obfuscate Illicit Proceeds.” Then, a leaked May 1, 2020 internal FBI report similarly titled “Threat Actors Likely Use Private Investment Funds to Launder Money, Circumventing Regulatory Tripwires” purported to supplement the January 2019 report “by providing recent reporting of hedge funds and private equity firms used to launder illicit proceeds, and expands the threat context beyond financial threat actors to include foreign adversaries.”
Decisions made more than 30 years ago drive challenges. The seeds of the City’s pension problems were sown more than three decades ago when the City promised unsustainable benefit increases to members of the retirement system without funding the associated annual Actuarily Determined Contribution (ADC).2
The severity of the situation makes Providence an outlier. The City of Providence’s Employee Retirement System (ERS) is among the lowest funded pension plans in the nation. Since 1991, the City’s unfunded pension liability increased by more than $1 billion. In addition to the pension liabilities, and over and above the pension shortfall, the City’s retiree health benefits are underfunded by approximately $1.1 billion.3 The unfunded liability of the ERS drives costs to City that outpace revenue growth, limiting investments in other priorities. As of June 30, 2020, the ERS was only 22.2 percent funded.4 Total pension liabilities equated to $8,518 per resident – of which $6,629 is not funded.5 In the last twenty years, the City’s unfunded liability per capita increased by $4,000 per resident.
A coalition of civic leaders is recommending that Providence issue a $500 million bond to address the city’s massive unfunded pension obligation.
“Doing nothing is simply not an option,” the Pension Working Group wrote in a 27-page report issued Monday. The group of public officials, working with business and nonprofit leaders, released its recommendations after six months spent studying the city’s staggering pension liability problem.
Providence’s pension plan is funded at 22%, making it one of the weakest employee retirement systems in the nation. Since 1991, the city’s unfunded liability has grown by more than $1 billion, and that doesn’t include a $1.1 billion shortfall in retiree health benefits.
“Current and future retiree liabilities are unsustainable,” the report states.
In 1998, Reform Party candidate Victor Moffitt campaigned for state treasurer on a platform that included eliminating the state income tax on military pensions.
Said Moffitt in 1998: “That’s a small amount to pay to the people who risked their lives to preserve our freedom and democracy.”
This history frustrates Vasquez-Hellner because Rhode Island is one of only four states that does not have a specific exemption for veteran pensions. (The first $15,000 of all pensions, regardless of source, are tax-exempt.)
Supporters argue the change is a long-overdue step to counter the impression that Rhode Island does not treat its veterans as well as other states, such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. Both fully exempt veteran pensions from state income tax.
State securities regulators and NASAA have historically had very little to say about Wall Street looting of these pensions. That’s not altogether surprising given that state securities regulators almost universally serve at the whim of elected politicians—politicians who depend upon Wall Street campaign contributions. If a state securities regulator aggressively pursues Wall Street pension looting, she may be swiftly out of a job.
However, since NASAA believes “every investor deserves protection and an even break” the organization should focus upon the disturbing fact that today public pension stakeholders in all 50 states are routinely denied prospectuses and other material investment information related to their pension assets—the very same information which is widely disseminated globally to wealthy individuals. In the absence of prospectuses, public pension stakeholders cannot possibly evaluate whether pension assets are prudently invested.
Recently I filed a complaint with the Ohio Department of Commerce, Division of Securities regarding the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio which has failed since February to provide prospectuses and other offering materials related to the teachers’ pension investments in response to my public records request filed on behalf of 19,000 Ohio teachers. Not a single page of a single prospectus has been released to me by STRS Ohio since February. The Division is investigating my complaint at this time.
In Rhode Island, my request for the prospectuses regarding that state’s pension investments was also denied by Treasurer Seth Magaziner last week as the pension perversely asserts, on behalf of Wall Street, that widely distributed prospectuses can somehow be “trade secrets.” I intend to file an appeal and a lawsuit challenging Magaziner’s secret pension dealings in Rhode Island.
Given that public pensions in all 50 states today refuse to provide some or all prospectuses to stakeholders, including both participants and taxpayers, publci pension secrecy is a national problem that needs to be addressed.
According to statistics from The Associated Press, the five states with the highest percentage of a fully vaccinated population are all in New England, with Vermont leading, followed by Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. New Hampshire is 10th.
Case counts in Vermont, which has continually boasted about high vaccination and low hospitalization and death rates, are the highest during the pandemic. Hospitalizations are approaching the pandemic peak from last winter and September was Vermont’s second-deadliest month during the pandemic.
Providence’s pension crisis has its roots in the late 1980s. That’s when the city’s Retirement Board approved unusually generous compounded cost of living adjustments for more than 2,500 city workers and retirees. Decades later, that move helps explain why there’s a $1.2 billion gap between the pension balance and the amount owed to current and future retirees.
The pension crisis has defied attempted solutions for years. Providence officials say the city has just 22% of the money needed to meet its long-term pension obligations. And the amount of the city budget consumed by the pension is growing 5 percent a year, to about $93 million currently. Without a change, that annual payment will rise to $227 million by 2040.
Mayor Jorge Elorza said these pension costs are unsustainable.
“It’s only a matter of time before they continue to squeeze everything else out of our budget, so that we’re cutting deeper and deeper into the bone,” he said during a recent news conference.
Elorza’s plan involves selling $704 million in pension obligation bonds. The idea is that these bonds could generate enough of a return to boost the pension system’s funding to more than 60 percent.
Governor Dan McKee on Tuesday weighed in on two critical issues facing Providence: shakeups in contract negotiations with the teachers union and Mayor Jorge Elorza’s plan for a pension obligation bond to throw the city a financial lifeline.
On Elorza’s idea for a $704-million pension obligation bond to address the city’s unfunded pension liability, McKee raised skepticism, suggesting the plan is risky and that the timing isn’t right.
“I think it’s rolling the dice,” he said. “And again, I’ll reflect back to the time I was a mayor. I made sure that there was actuaries that supported any decision made in our local pensions including the police pension. I haven’t seen any actuaries that I would rely on. I’m not sure there’s time right now between now and the end of session to do that in a way that I would feel comfortable with.”
Red flags waved as Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza proposed issuing $704 million in pension obligation bonds to deal with a pestering unfunded liability problem in Rhode Island’s capital city.
The amount exceeds the city’s annual operating budget. Bond markets often frown on such borrowing and sentiment among state officials who must sign off is uncertain. Skeptics also call the city’s fiscal management track record shaky, while memories linger of a fiasco in Woonsocket, which tried a similar move nearly 20 years ago.
Forensic investigations in Rhode Island, North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio reveal that gambling 30 percent or more on high-cost, high-risk, secretive alternative investments has exposed pensions to massively greater risks and reduced net returns. The time is ripe for legislators, regulators, and law enforcement to act to stop the looting.
A recent New York Times NYT-3% article revealed that putting more than half of the $62 billion Pennsylvania state teachers’ retirement fund’s assets into risky alternative investments hadn’t worked out well for the pension and had spurred an investigation by the FBI. The FBI is investigating reporting fraud—returns allegedly falsified to avoid increased worker contributions to the pension.
Law enforcement investigations into public pension funds that lie about their returns are long, long overdue.
Since ABC6 first reported last month on discrepancies in pension payments to hundreds of union members in Rhode Island, a retired worker has come forward saying that if the state doesn’t pay him and others what they believe they are owed, there could be a lawsuit.
“They took a lot of money away from us,” the member, who wants to remain anonymous, told ABC6. He is a retired state worker with more than 30 years on the job. He says he’s missing 12 years of wages.
He says after months of back and forth with the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) and the RI Department of Administration, a settlement was offered to members for 9 years of lost wages.
NORTH PROVIDENCE – The town’s police pension fund last year gained more than 10 percent, or $4.7 million, says Mayor Charles Lombardi, a huge year for a fund that was once in tatters.
The Breeze reported back in September 2013 that the town’s injection of $20.6 million from the Police Department’s $60 million winnings in a settlement with Google a year earlier had pushed the fund to more than 95 percent funded.
The state’s 2019 report on locally administered pension plans showed that the fund lost about 8.1 percent on its funded status from 2012 to 2018, to 86.8 percent, and that number was about 88 percent last year, said Lombardi. He said the town’s actuary hasn’t completed its work yet, but he’s hoping that funding status could reach 90 to 92 percent with this latest positive news.