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Gov. Wolf reins in PSERS travel and limits who can bill the pension fund for costly dinners

The tightening follows an Inquirer article that for the first time revealed the heavy spending by 40 or so members of PSERS' investment office as they jetted across the nation and overseas.

PSERS Executive Director Glen Grell, listens in during the main board room meeting at the PSERS offices in Harrisburg, Pa., on Friday, June 11, 2021.
PSERS Executive Director Glen Grell, listens in during the main board room meeting at the PSERS offices in Harrisburg, Pa., on Friday, June 11, 2021.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Gov. Tom Wolf has cracked down on extravagant spending on travel at the state’s largest pension fund.

In two recent orders, his administration stripped away two “perks” given top executives of the PSERS fund that exempted them from the normal spending controls imposed on state workers.

Wolf now requires the executives to use cars from the state’s motor pool when they drive on state business, rescinding their special permission to drive their personal cars and get paid mileage.

He also ended the special permission given eight top executive of PSERS to pick up the tab at state expense for others, in and out of state government, during work-related meals. Among those losing this privilege were PSERS executive director Glen Grell, chief investment officer James H. Grossman Jr., and the fund’s chief, financial, technology and legal officers. Wolf left the fund’s 15 board members with the perk.

Wolf issued no comment about his actions. Nor was there any comment from PSERS, the Public School Employees’ Retirement System. Grell briefly told the board about the governor’s decision Friday, offering no opinion.

The tightening, imposed July 29, comes as the fund faces a months-long FBI probe into its real estate purchases in Harrisburg and its mistaken adoption of an exaggerated figure for its investment returns. An embarrassed board adopted a new lower figure in April, requiring it to increase the pension paycheck deductions last month for 100,000 teachers. Taxpayers also are paying more.

In a rift on the board, six of the agency’s 15 trustees supported a drive in June to fire Grell and Grossman and stop the fund from investing in alternative investments. Their effort failed, but the fund has postponed several alternative investments, which critics say perform poorly and are too costly, opaque, and illiquid.

PSERS in recent years has put more than half of its billions into these alternatives, more than any other public fund in the United States, leading to weak results. A Pew Charitable Trusts 2019 report on nearly 75 major retirement plans found PSERS’ overall profits to be second from the bottom over 10 years.

In recent months, several bills have been introduced in the state legislature that would reform PSERS. The bills would increase transparency and disclose more fees going to the fund’s well-paid outside money managers. One measure would empower the auditor general to conduct fraud audits while another would educate pension trustees.

The governor’s actions to limit travel follow an Inquirer article in April that for the first time revealed the heavy spending by 40 or so members of the investment office as they traversed the nation and the world to check on $70 billion in pension fund investments for 500,000 retired and working teachers.

The article detailed hotel charges that included a $1,178 overnight stay in New York for one person, a $1,144 overnight stay in Boston and a $955 overnight stay in Beverly Hills, among others. Plane costs were even more expensive, paced by a round-trip fare to London for $15,627. That was one of 15 trips for which the fare was more than $11,000.

Grossman and most of his staff traveled often, or at least they did before COVID-19 struck. Their most frequent destination has been New York, followed by London, then Boston. Philadelphia was the fourth most common destination.

State pool cars are parked at a Harrisburg garage or around various agency offices, so most workers must drive there to transfer to them. They include a range of economy and midsize cars, including Chevrolet Cruzes and Malibus and Ford Fusions and Escape SUVs. Pennsylvania also has a contract with Enterprise for rentals.

For most state employees, the state website governing vehicles discourages the use of personal cars by cutting the normal reimbursement rates by two thirds from the current 56 cents a mile if an employee does not use a state car or rental. The idea is to steer employees to cheaper vehicles.

Last month, the PSERS board on its own initiative voted to adopt an even more sweeping move to get back in step with state spending controls. It voted 14-1 to disallow another special exemption that spared it from a rule that state travelers stay at the cheapest reasonable hotel.

On Wednesday, Arthur Steinberg, president of AFT Pennsylvania, a union for 36,000 teachers and other school staff in the state, said his union would welcome an even greater shake-up at PSERS.

“The concerns with PSERS trustees and staff charging the commonwealth for outrageous expenses are not new,” he said. “While we welcome these small changes, our position remains that wholesale change is needed at PSERS — in the board and of the staff — far beyond this to ensure transparency and good stewardship of both taxpayer and educators’ money.”

Pension fund travel costs are borne ultimately by taxpayers and retirees. But under PSERS’ convoluted travel policy, outside money managers hired by the fund would typically make all travel arrangements and pay up front for transit, hotel bills, and meals.

These hedge fund and private-equity firms would at times hold their business meetings at luxury hotels. Until the change in policy last month, PSERS investment staff would stay there, rather than sleep at someplace cheaper and walk or taxi to the conference site.

Though the outside firms made all bookings and put up the money, they would eventually bill the fund for the expenses. So, ultimately, the plan paid for the travel. In another recent change, PSERS no longer has the outside firms make the bookings.

Under the old arrangement, the board, the public, and even the travelers had little knowledge of the true cost of travel. Critics said the practice encouraged unchecked spending and a too-cozy relationship between the investment office and the money managers.

The plan only last year produced its first report detailing travel expenses, disclosing that PSERS spent $1.5 million on travel between 2017 and 2019, before COVID-19 ended most trips.

Of that, the investment staff ran up charges of $1.1 million, other PSERS staff spent $300,000, and the board members spent $100,000. The volunteer board was reimbursed for travel to meetings in Harrisburg and to conferences in California, Arizona, and Washington.

Even so, the reporting had big gaps. Of 500 trips detailed between 2017 and 2019, the plan had no reliable figure for spending on meals for almost a third.

While PSERS has been shaking up its travel policies, its sister agency, SERS, the pension plan for 81,000 retired state workers, has done little to change. It still permits private money to book travel and choose the flights and hotels for SERS investment staff — the practice abandoned by PSERS. It also has an exemption that spares its board and three top executives from the state’s normal limits on travel spending. The exemption dates to 1986.

On the other hand, SERS staff have never been permitted to use their personal cars or pick up the tab for others, the plan said Wednesday.