The arrogance continues.
Two months ago, Priya Mathur, a BART financial analyst also serving as a trustee of the California Public Employees' Retirement System, apologized to her pension board colleagues for failing to file state-mandated conflict-of-interest statements.
She expressed "profound regret" for "embarrassing" the CalPERS board. She promised to pay $7,000 in fines levied by the state Fair Political Practices Commission. "I have great respect for the FPPC and the public trust that it upholds. "... And I want to assure this board that this will not happen again."
While in the investment world past performance does not predict future returns, when it comes to Mathur, it sure does. The FPPC has yet to receive a dime of the fines. On Friday afternoon, Mathur finally responded to my inquiries, saying by e-mail that the first check, for $3,000, was in the mail and that she expected to pay the balance within a week.
The latest fines were Mathur's second and third FPPC violations. She had ignored multiple warnings and refused to cooperate with the commission's investigators, ditching their phone calls and e-mails, refusing to accept certified mail and avoiding a process server. The FPPC had to serve her at CalPERS meetings.
The last fine, for $4,000, was the largest for a delinquent Statement of Economic Interest that FPPC Executive Director Roman Porter knows of. Porter is looking at options for collecting the fines, including attaching tax refunds from the Franchise Tax Board, garnishing her wages or placing a lien on her property.
Mathur sits on the 13-member CalPERS board, which oversees more than $200 billion of assets for 1.6 million active and retired state, public school and local public agency employees around the state.
In May, the CalPERS board censured Mathur, stripping her of travel privileges and suspending her from her position as chair of the pension fund's Health Benefits Committee until Dec. 1.
It remains to be seen whether she got the message. It's unfortunate. There are already enough ethical questions surrounding the pension system.
Travelin' Jim grounded
James Remick's extensive travels as a trustee of the Contra Costa County Employees' Retirement Association have come to an abrupt, but perhaps temporary, halt.
"Traveling Jim," also a sergeant in the Contra Costa Sheriff's Office, was elected by public safety members as a board alternate, meaning he can usually only vote if one of three other board members is absent. Nevertheless, as I reported in June, in 2008 and 2009, he ran up more than $61,000 in expenses attending conferences. That's about one-third of the total travel bill for the nine board members and three alternates.
A new report on 2010 expenses through June 15 shows him on a similar pace. He attended 14 conferences, spent another $13,500, and again accounted for about one-third of the board's travel expenses. He has said the trips were necessary to help educate him about pension system investments.
Since state law requires that Remick be given paid time off from work for retirement board business, his absences frustrated his bosses, Sheriff Warren Rupf and Undersheriff Scott Daly. They complained that Remick was gone 25 percent to 40 percent of the time and that the retirement board needed to notify them of when he would be gone.
They took their concerns to the board on June 9. Remick was not at the meeting because he was in Chicago on another trip. Five days later, Daly met with Remick to discuss conditions of employment and duties as a retirement board member. The next day, Remick went to see his doctor, who told him to stop working, Daly said. "He is off work due to an injury and we have no prognosis when he will be back."
In California, public safety workers are entitled to up to a year off at full pay when they're injured. Citing employee confidentiality, Daly could not discuss the nature of Remick's injury. Remick did not return my call for comment.
Ironically, Remick's seat on the retirement board is designated for a current employee. If he can't work, he can't serve on the board. So, for now, Remick is grounded. No hotel points. No frequent-flier miles.
As for the expenses, a majority of the pension board seems unconcerned. Board member Bill Pollacek, who is also county treasurer, said it's important that trustees spend travel money responsibly. "Unfortunately, one didn't," he said at the July 14 meeting as he called for travel policy changes. But trustees, led by labor members, beat back efforts to limit the number of conferences. The best the board could agree on is a $75-a-day limit on meals.
Sue 'em or lead 'em
The Contra Costa pension board's new chairman was just last year helping sue the retirement association he now leads.
At it's July 14 meeting, a divided board chose Jerry Telles as the new chairman. Telles serves on the board as the elected representative of retirees.
As I reported, Telles was also president of a separate 800-member retiree support group last year when it backed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the pension system seeking to block the release of data about retirement payments.
While Telles' support group was funding the legal action, he was participating in closed sessions of the retirement association as trustees were discussing strategy for fighting the lawsuit. In public session, he even tried to get the retirement board to fund the litigation against it.
There was a lot at stake. The lawsuit sought to block a taxpayer watchdog group and this newspaper from obtaining pension records that showed who was enjoying hefty retirement payments. It was through the eventual release of those records that I was able to report, for example, that four former top officials of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District were each collecting pensions of $245,500-$284,000 a year. It highlighted some of the pension spiking among top government administrators across the county.
Telles' conduct was troubling. As a trustee of the retirement association, he has a primary responsibility to 18,000 current and future pensioners, not to the 800 members of his retirement support group.
The need for squeaky-clean conduct by trustees of such retirement associations is so important that it's written into the California Constitution. The provisions also are written into the Contra Costa association's Code of Fiduciary Conduct and Ethics.
Telles is no longer president of the support group. And the whole incident last year was never mentioned when the pension board picked its new chairman. But it might explain why Pollacek and two appointees of the county board of supervisors, Paul Katz and Dave Gaynor, voted against the selection.
Daniel Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.