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Questions Surround Chicago Teachers Pension Fund Long, Long Overdue Forensic Investigation

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Sixteen years after a forensic investigation of the Chicago teachers’ pension was first proposed by deeply concerned trustees, as well as lauded in The New York Times

NYT
, the pension claims it has contracted for a forensic review. Whether the scope of the investigation will finally seek answers to longstanding trustee questions regarding potential conflicts of interest, fiduciary breaches and violations of law regarding its investments, the pension won’t say.  

An early 2005 New York Times article entitled, Unmasking That Pension Consultant, observed it was a mystery why public pension funds were so reluctant to investigate whether they might have been hurt by their investment consultants’ conflicted loyalties. As the article noted, the biases in these advisory firms were enough of a concern to the Securities and Exchange Commission that the regulator was conducting an industrywide investigation of pension consultants and might recommend enforcement actions against some of them.

The SEC investigation, which the DOL and GAO later joined, ultimately concluded that pension consultant conflicts of interest involving Wall Street money managers paying consultants to recommend them to pensions were pervasive, poorly disclosed and resulted in significant financial harm. The SEC Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations issued a report May 16, 2005 and took action against a handful of investment consulting firms in the months that followed the report’s release. (My firm recommended the focused review of the investment consulting industry, when asked by the SEC for an initiative that would have high impact upon pensions specifically, and worked with all three federal agencies for two years on the project.)

The NYT article went on to state that the board of the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund was reviewing a proposal by my firm to conduct a comprehensive conflict-of-interest audit of its investment consultant, Mercer Inc., a unit of Marsh & McLennan

MMC
. The fund had $10.3 billion in assets and had been a Mercer client since 1990.

Said NYT Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gretchen Morgenson, “If the Chicago teachers’ fund goes ahead with the audit — it will decide next month — it may very well encourage other pension funds to conduct similar investigations…. It’s about time.”

“Here’s hoping that other funds will follow the teachers’ lead,” concluded Morgenson.

Despite encouragement from the NYT and proving that in Chicago only local news matters, the teachers’ fund failed to lead.

While certain trustees recommended and voted in favor of the forensic investigation into these industry abuses proposed in 2005, the potential damage to the pension was never investigated and quantified at that time.

The teachers pension has changed investment consultants over time.

Again in September 2015, my firm, in a letter to the Board recommended a forensic investigation into conflicts of interest, undisclosed fees and potential violations of law related to the financial advisors responsible for the investments of the fund. It is unclear whether the letter was ever presented to the Board and if not, why not. For whatever reason, it appears no proposal to investigate the potential harm to the pension referenced in the letter was entertained by the Board in 2015.

As a result, trustee concerns regarding pervasive industry abuses which may have undermined the investment performance of the pension were left unaddressed for decades. Since the Government Accountability Office has estimated investment consultant conflicts can result in 1.3 percent lower returns, the harm to the $13 billion pension from this single form of industry wrongdoing alone may amount to nearly $170 million per year and over time—even without compounding—may exceed $3 billion.

At the October 15, 2020 Board meeting the trustees themselves once again requested a forensic audit of the Fund. This time, five months later on March 6, 2021, the pension publicly announced it had entered into a contract with BDO USA, LLP for a purported “forensic audit.”

Recently, I sent Michelle Holleman, Director of Communications for the pension the following questions:

Will the investigation by BDO include a review for conflicts of interest, fiduciary breaches, hidden and excessive fees, and potential violations of law related to the investment portfolio? When will the investigation be completed? Will the investigative findings be made public for pension stakeholders to scrutinize?

To which Holleman responded:

The CTPF Board of Trustees hired BDO USA, LLP to conduct a forensic audit of the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund.

An audit is being conducted as part of the Board’s fiduciary duty. Your request for the contract and amendments has been forwarded to our legal department and will be processed as a FOIA.

A completion date has not been determined.

CTPF is a public body and operates transparently. The information provided in the audit report will be released to the public, consistent with Illinois law and the Freedom of Information Act.

I again asked the question which Holleman strategically neglected to answer: whether the investigation by BDO would include a review for conflicts of interest, fiduciary breaches, hidden and excessive fees, and potential violations of law related to the investment portfolio. Holleman responded, “The scope of the audit is currently confidential.”

So much for transparency at the pension.

Later, in response to my request for a copy of the contract with BDO, Daniel Hurtado, the Chief Legal Officer for the pension advised me that after conferring with BDO (emphasis added), the pension will be producing only a redacted copy of the agreement. “Redactions will be made for trade secrets and commercial or financial  and commercial or financial information obtained from a person or business where trade secrets or commercial or financial information are furnished under a claim (presumably by BDO) that they are proprietary, privileged, privileged, or confidential, and that disclosure of the trade secrets or commercial or financial information would cause competitive harm to the person or business, and only insofar as the claim directly applies to the records requested.”

Having personally conducted more forensic investigations of public pensions that any person dead or alive—over $1 trillion—that was disturbing. Public pensions, which are funded by taxpayers and state workers, are supposed to be the most transparent of all pensions. State Freedom of Information Acts are supposed to ensure public scrutiny of these trillions of public monies.

All of the agreements related to my forensic investigations of public pensions have been made public. There is no need for secrecy here. To the contrary, pension stakeholders deserve to know whether the scope of the investigation includes the investments because if it doesn’t the investigation is worthless—a complete waste of money, in my opinion. Further, if the forensic investigation indeed included all the investments, all of the Wall Street money managers hired by the pension would have to be told and asked to cooperate, so the only parties kept in the dark as to the scope of the investigation would be the stakeholders—whose retirement savings are at risk. That makes absolutely no sense.

Also, contrary to Director of Communications Holleman’s potentially misleading statements above, there is no way the final forensic investigative findings can be made fully public (without redactions) without revealing the scope of the investigation. So, teachers patiently waiting for eventual release of the report months or years from now to see its scope makes no sense.

As I detail in my book, Who Stole My Pension? How To Stop the Looting, my forensic investigations focused upon widespread investment industry abuses have revealed mismanagement of investments and related malfeasance is the leading cause of pension underfunding. Recovering ill-gotten gains, as well, is often crucial to restoring sustainability. 

“A forensic audit that doesn’t look at the pension’s investment strategies and the portfolio, including conflicts of interest and fees, usually suggests a whitewash—giving the appearance of reform without scrutinizing areas with the greatest potential financial impact,” says Chris Tobe, CFA who completed a forensic audit of the Chicago Police Pension in August 2021 and found rampant investment problems.

Tobe believes the participant-funded audit of the police pension he conducted and its investment findings led to immediate significant changes at the pension, including defeat of the Chair of the Board of Trustees who also served as a full-time police officer and acted as the Chief Investment Officer of the plan. Tobe noted that the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund’s more than $13 billion in debt is highest among the eight city-related retirement systems and despite saddling Chicagoans with a property tax burden that ranks among the highest in the nation, the teachers’ pension system is only 45% funded.

Jack Silver, retired teacher, former longtime trustee and Vice President of the pension who supported the audit in 2005, believes the investigation is long overdue and that its scope should be disclosed immediately. “I don’t know why it’s a secret. Under FOIA, it should be disclosed,” Silver told me.

Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund stakeholders, including taxpayers and participants, deserve to know the truth about the scope of any forensic investigation they’re paying for. It’s a simple question that deserves an honest answer and there’s no need for secrecy: Will the forensic investigation include a review for conflicts of interest, fiduciary breaches, hidden and excessive fees, and potential violations of law related to the investment portfolio? Yes or no? Teachers deserve to know.



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