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.”
For nearly two decades, alternative investment managers have been permitted to handle public pension money while they refuse to play by the rules applicable to these funds and submit to public scrutiny.
Wall Street alternative managers have successfully argued that the very same investment information widely distributed to wealthy individuals somehow amounts to “trade secrets” exempt from public records laws… when requested by state workers.
While it’s not surprising Wall Street’s biggest gamblers want to keep investors in the dark as to their misdeeds, it’s unconscionable that STRS Ohio and other public pensions around the nation are willing to abandon transparency, exposing workers to unfathomable risks and jeopardizing their retirement security.
Alternative investment managers may seek to keep secrets, but it’s no secret what’s often in these well-guarded documents: excessive and illegal fees; outrageous conflicts of interest and self dealing; fiduciary breaches and outright violations of law—even criminal conduct. For example, eight years ago the SEC staff found that a majority of private equity firms inflate fees and expenses charged to companies in which they hold stakes.
Jelincic is challenging CalPERS’ dubious denials of two different Public Records Act requests he made. One focuses on impermissible secret board discussions shortly after Chief Investment Officer Ben Meng’s sudden resignation last August. The filing not only calls for these records to be made public but also demands that board members be released to discuss all the matters that CalPERS impermissibly covered in the August “closed session”. The second involves CalPERS’ continuing efforts to hide records showing how it overvalued real estate investments by $583 million. Yet CalPERS not only has said nary a peep about bogus valuations are larger than the total amount it was slotted to invest in a mothballed solo development project, 301 Capitol Mall, but it continues to publish balance sheets that include the inflated results.
We predicted that CalPERS would be be even more inclined than usual to fight these Public Records Act requests because the filing seeks remedies beyond release of the records. First, it requests that CalPERS be found to have violated the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act. Second, to the extent that the judge rules that the board discussed items in closed session that should have been agendized for and deliberated in open session, the suit asks that board members be permitted to disclose the contents of those particular discussions in public. Third, the filing calls on the court to require that CalPERS make video and audio recordings of all closed sessions and keep them for five years (this is something that CalPERS currently does but this obligation is meant to shut the door to “the dog ate my disk” pretenses down the road.)