RALEIGH A blistering report on the management of the states $87 billion pension fund commissioned by the State Employees Association of North Carolina reinforces and significantly expands the groups long-standing criticisms of state Treasurer Janet Cowell.
The 147-page report takes a shotgun approach, leveling numerous accusations and complaints steeped in inflammatory language.
Among other things, the report, unveiled at a press conference at SEANCs headquarters Tuesday morning, contends that Cowell has potentially violated numerous state and federal laws regarding investment disclosure; concealed $30 billion in investments from public view; and cost the pension fund $6.8 billion in returns over the past five years because alternative investments, such as hedge funds and real estate, have under-performed.
The conclusion in the report, broadly, is that the pension fund is sick, it is suffering, it is failing to meet its objective, said Edward Ted Siedle, the consultant SEANC hired to write the report. There is compelling evidence of wrongdoing.
Siedle and Dana Cope, SEANCs executive director, said SEANC intends to file a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commissions Office of the Whisteblower and seek an Internal Revenue Service investigation. It also plans to call the report to the FBIs attention.
SEANCs Cope said his organization will also be asking the General Assembly to stop the treasurer from entering into any agreements with Wall Street to conceal their fees. We will be the first in the nation, as I understand it, to request legislation seeking that.
In an interview, Kevin SigRist, chief investment officer at the state treasurers office, defended the agencys investment and disclosure policies and said no laws are being violated.
SigRist said any shortfall in investment returns can be traced to the states risk-averse policy of investing a greater portion of its money in the fixed-income sector, such as bonds, than the industry norm.
Over time, the fund has had a lower risk than 80 percent of our public pension fund peers, and that has led to a lower return, he said. Its not attributable to alternatives.
Early Tuesday afternoon, the treasurers office issued a statement that said in its entirety: Upon brief examination, there are a number of areas where the report is simply wrong. A full accounting of every dollar of the pension fund is provided in the annual report.
But SEANC spokeswoman Toni Davis said the treasurers annual report contradicts the full-accounting claim on page 44, where it states: Consistent with industry convention, cost figures do not include the fees and expenses of investment managers that are held within fund of fund vehicles.
A fund of fund is an investment fund hired by the state to in turn hire other money managers that invest the states money.
SigRist countered that the states relationship is with the fund of funds.
We hire the fund of fund manager, he said. They go out and hire ... these other investment managers. And out of the fees we give to the fund of fund provider, they are paying those underlying managers.
Last month, Siedle wrote state Auditor Beth Wood asking her to conduct an investigation and compel the treasurer to disclose all direct and indirect fees, as required by North Carolina law. That request is still being evaluated by the auditors office, spokesman Bill Holmes said Tuesday.
Last year, Siedle issued a scathing report of the state employees pension fund in Rhode Island. That states treasurer labeled the report a political attack paid for by opponents of pension reform.
Siedle said that $30 billion of North Carolinas state pension funds has been heisted in the sense that details of the states investments in alternative funds havent been disclosed and are therefore off the radar screen.
When pressed by a reporter, Siedle said: Im not saying anybody has stolen anything. Im saying that money has been moved into the shadows.
No one knows how it is being invested, he said.
Wrapped in secrecy
Siedle conceded other states that make alternative investments also dont provide details on how hedge funds and other money managers invest that money.
Generally speaking, across the nation, 25 percent of the public pension assets perhaps $1 trillion is in alternative investments, he said. And across the nation, they are wrapped in secrecy.
Schorr Johnson, a spokesman for the treasurers office, said that the amount the state has invested in alternative investments is between $18 billion and $19 billion, not the $30 billion listed in the report.
The report also estimates that $400 million in annual fees for alternative investments are hidden from view because the treasurer hires fund of funds.
SigRist said the rates of return reported by the treasurer each quarter are calculated after deducting all investment fees and expenses.
There is no hidden fees whatsoever, he said.
The potential for pay-for-play is a major problem, the report contends.
The unchecked ability to steer tens of billions in workers retirement savings into hundreds of the highest-cost hedge, private equity, venture and real estate funds ever devised by Wall Street, in exchange for political contributions to her campaign and to the campaigns of other influential politicians, makes the treasurer today arguably the states most powerful elected official, the report states.
SEANC wants the state pension fund to be managed by an investment board rather than the state treasurer. State employees contribute 6 percent of their paychecks to the state pension fund.
In January, Cowell announced an independent, bipartisan commission would review the states structure for managing investments and look at whether an investment advisory committee should be created. North Carolina is one of just four states where the state treasurer makes investment decisions in consultation with staff.
The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.
Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email firstname.lastname@example.org to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.Read moreRead less