Pennsylvania’s school pension plan trustees voted Wednesday to extend a six-month contract for Seattle-based Verus Advisory Inc. to help oversee $73 billion in public investments, as federal investigators probe PSERS’s exaggerated financial returns, its Harrisburg land deals, and the gifts its staff may have exchanged with Wall Street firms.
In April, the board hired Verus to share responsibilities with James H. Grossman Jr., the system’s chief investment officer, after Grossman was required to respond to the initial investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Philadelphia and an internal investigation by outside law firm Womble Bond Dickinson. In September, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission began a probe of its own of PSERS, the Public School Employees’ Retirement System.
The contract calls for Verus to serve as “investment consultant,” helping manage PSERS’s 180 Wall Street investment managers, advisers, consultants, and other contractors — while also undertaking a “review and analysis” of PSERS investment procedures, asset allocations to public and private investments, Wall Street fees, and other “policies, practices and processes.”
Since then, Verus staff have appeared along with Grossman at trustee meetings and reviewed investment options for consideration. But board members say they have not received Verus’ analysis of PSERS’s operations.
State Rep. Frank X. Ryan (R., Lebanon), the board vice president and head of its audit and compliance committee, told fellow trustees at Wednesday’s meeting that Verus’ report has been delayed by the internal investigation and ongoing audits, but should be done before the contract’s three-month extension ends. Verus will submit a written report to trustees, he said.
“I would hope we could present some [results] to the public,” said State Sen. Katie J. Muth (D., Montgomery), a PSERS trustee, during Wednesday’s public meeting. “We are using public dollars,” and the public should know what the investigation found, she added.
“I would hope so, as well,” answered Ryan, but cautioned that the trustees still have to decide whether and how to go public with any recommendations.
Ryan’s audit committee and the board are scheduled to meet Nov. 18. Board members said privately that they expect highlights of the Womble internal investigation and recommendations may be reviewed then, and are bracing for revelations that may be critical of plan managers. Board leaders haven’t said whether the taxpayer-funded probe will result in a public, written report.
Another PSERS reform report also is pending: a $400,000 governance review and recommendations from Funston Advisory Services, hired last year to examine the relationship between PSERS’s board and staff.
Verus’ extension is a sign of the toll the investigations are taking on the $73 billion pension fund. The FBI and federal prosecutors launched their criminal probe of PSERS in March immediately after the fund’s board revealed doubts about the figure it had certified in December for past financial results. PSERS later recanted that number, forcing more than 100,000 younger educators to pay more for future pensions.
Prosecutors’ multiple subpoenas also focused on the pension fund’s $5 million appropriation in 2019 to buy real estate near its headquarters in Harrisburg. The agency demolished buildings on those tracts but has built nothing, so far, to make the investment profitable.
The agency has come under fire for poor performance results compared with those of its peers. In September board members rejected a staff investment proposal that the plan pump at least $25 million more into one of its largest investments, the Yes Communities chain of mobile-home parks. That marked the second time in a month that the board had rejected staff recommendations. In October, the PSERS board also agreed to sell all of the plan’s hedge funds and nearly double investment in U.S. stocks.
Verus was hired at an initial rate of $135,000 a month, for six months, starting April 5. The extension, under terms of the original contract, will pay Verus a reduced rate of $90,000 a month, for the next three months, with further extensions possible.