Pensions, politics and peccadilloes
By ANDY SHAW December 8, 2013 6:50PM
The big pension story last week was Springfield’s long-overdue passage of a comprehensive reform plan that includes a fiscal fix and some key anti-abuse provisions.
Now it’s off to court to see if the plan is constitutional. And then to resuscitate some of the other ailing pension systems around the state, including Chicago’s police, fire and school retirement funds.
So there’s still a lot more work to do.
And there are enough additional pension peccadilloes to make a watchdog’s skin crawl, including the controversy surrounding Gray & Company founder Larry Gray, whose firm advises the Chicago Transit Authority’s pension and retiree health care plans, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Retirement Fund.
Gray is facing misconduct allegations from his business dealings with an Atlanta public pension fund, which prompted a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.
In addition, the firm recently resigned as investment adviser to three other government clients, and may pull out of several more.
But Gray’s local contracts — $855,000 a year from the CTA plans and $170,000 from the MWRD plan — are still intact.
And the people who run those funds are stonewalling our efforts to discuss the situation.
That’s a serious governance issue.
Gray’s problems began when he suggested an Atlanta pension plan he was advising invest in a private fund he controlled, allegedly without adequately disclosing the connection.
Members of that pension board viewed Gray’s dual role as consultant and money manager as a conflict of interest that undermined the reliability and independence of his investment advice.
Gray’s also had personal financial problems, including $425,000 in tax liens and a $1 million legal settlement that were reportedly not initially disclosed to regulators or clients.
And at a recent public board meeting in Chicago, where he was on the hot seat, Gray admitted to another disclosure lapse: Failing to notify the MWRD fund about the SEC probe within five business days, as the contract requires.
Gray’s agreement with the CTA’s retirement plan apparently doesn’t include that disclosure clause, which suggests that tighter controls might have prevented, or at least eased, some of the latest concerns.
This is a big deal because Gray & Company helps manage billions of tax dollars, so its financial recommendations affect thousands of taxpayers and retired government employees whose families depend on the income from the funds.
The managers of the CTA and MWRD funds have apparently decided not to hold Gray accountable for his past problems, and they’ve also exhibited a disturbing lack of transparency.
None of the seven MWRD retirement fund trustees was willing to talk about Gray, and John Kallianis, executive director of the CTA funds, refused to talk to a reporter at a public meeting, repeatedly uttering, “No comment.”
Kallianis also reached out to Susan Boutin, head of the MWRD fund, and essentially encouraged her not to take phone calls from the media, according to emails obtained by the BGA through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
And Kathleen Meany, the MWRD board president, didn’t return phone calls or emails.
That’s unacceptable behavior by the people entrusted to protect the retirement accounts of public employees.
Those retirees, and the rest of us, have a right to know why the CTA and MWRD pension funds still have confidence in Gray’s investment advice.
So yes — Illinois now has some pension reform, but there is still a lot left to do.
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.