By Chris Reed.
A rowdy, muckraking financial blog that has repeatedly raised later-corroborated concerns about how the California Public Employees’ Retirement System operates has gotten traction with one of its new allegations.
The Naked Capitalism blog’s report that CalPERS CEO Marcie Frost had misled the giant pension fund about her education prompted state Treasurer John Chiang to seek an independent investigation.
Naked Capitalism blogger Susan Webber offered evidence that Frost – who does not have a college degree – allegedly told a consultant who evaluated her job application before her hiring in 2016 that she was enrolled in a degree program at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The Sacramento Bee reported that she hadn’t taken any classes at the college since 2010. Before coming to CalPERS, Frost led Washington’s Department of Retirement Services, which oversees more than a dozen defined-benefit state pension funds.
In May, Webber’s reporting led CalPERS to oust Chief Financial Officer Charles Asubonten for making misleading claims about his employment history before he was hired.
With CalPERS’ new mess, a potentially big problem for Frost is that while she might be able to dismiss questions about whether she was honest over her education as the result of a misunderstanding, Naked Capitalism’s recent reports actually raise bigger concerns.
Accuracy of death-benefits claim questioned
For one example, Naked Capitalism writer Yves Smith last week wrote a persuasive analysis that argued that CalPERS had cherry-picked among data in claiming it was doing a better job processing death benefits in 45 days or less.
“CalPERS used an obviously cooked-up basis of comparison. Rather than take the same time period in successive years, CalPERS instead chose a set number of cases to examine (300 each) before and after a suspiciously arbitrary-looking cutoff date, February 12. Under questioning, the presenters admitted the ‘before’ cases included ones submitted in November and December,” Smith wrote.
“Why does this matter? The beginning of November through end of January is certain to be the worst time of year in terms of efficiency for a government agency. First, you have a high density of holidays compared to the rest of the year (Veterans’ Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Martin Luther King Day). Output suffers due to distractions like holiday shopping, more interaction with family members, and even getting out of the mood to work. Second, many employees also take vacation days around these holidays (and recall that CalPERS employees have generous vacation allowances). So there was also almost certainly reduced manpower to process claims during this period.”
There is no sign that Chiang or others with oversight authority are looking at this allegation. Last week, the CalPERS board made its feelings known about Frost, voting to raise her pay by 4 percent to $330,720 and to give her an $84,873 bonus.
Board officials suspicious of blog’s motives
A Sacramento Bee story last week about Naked Capitalism’s critiques of CalPERS gave space to CalPERS’ officials’ claims that there is something suspicious or perhaps partisan about an East Coast-based blog paying so much attention to a pension system across the nation.
In comments that the Bee reported were intended for Webber, CalPERS Vice President Rob Feckner said, “You’re not from California. Why would you be involved in a California election for that board? Why is it so important to you to get someone elected in that board?” Webber has been sharply critical of Feckner and other board members who have close relationships with Frost.
Naked Capitalism’s tart response: “CalPERS likes to relish its status as the biggest, highest profile public pension fund, but when it gets bad press, its stance is that it’s a parochial organization and why isn’t it left alone?” wrote Yves Smith.
No one familiar with the blog would consider it obsessed with CalPERS. The website’s roster of authors with Wall Street or banking backgrounds is long and their targets are widely varied. The site’s index cites nearly 5,000 stories about the global finance industry versus 98 about CalPERS.