CalPERS may see more lawsuits
A state lawsuit targeting two top former officials of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System could be the first in a series of state and federal actions focused on the nation’s largest public pension fund.
“This is not the end of this case or the end of the investigation,” Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said at a news conference Thursday. “Other things could follow.”
Brown said that information from his office’s investigation or independent investigations could result in more lawsuits or criminal indictments from a local district attorney, the Fair Political Practices Commission or other law enforcement agencies.
On Wednesday, Brown’s office filed a civil lawsuit against Alfred R. Villalobos, a former CalPERS board member who has made more than $47 million in fees since leaving the agency to function as a go-between for investment firms looking to do business with CalPERS.
A so-called placement agent, Villalobos allegedly helped private equity fund managers seal deals to invest billions of dollars of government workers’ retirement money by wooing CalPERS officials with expensive meals, champagne, luxurious travel and other perks.
“Villalobos spent tens of thousands of dollars to lavishly entertain key senior exectives at CalPERS, who then influenced the board to authorize investments that generated over $40 million in commissions to Villalobos,” Brown said. “None of these actions were disclosed as required by law, as state pension holders and taxpayers have every right to expect.”
The suit alleged that Villalobos and a current business associate, former CalPERS Chief Executive Federico Buenrostro, fraudulently made and received gifts intended to influence board investment decisions.
They also violated state law by transacting securities without being properly licensed. Buenrostro retired from CalPERS in June 2008 and immediately went to work for Villalobos. Among the benefits he received were a free Lake Tahoe condominium and a $300,000 consulting fee, according to the lawsuit.
Neither Villalobos nor Buenrostro responded to requests for comment. But Brown said that both men had been served with the lawsuit and related orders.
The lawsuit is seeking up to $25 million in civil penalties and up to $70 million in restitution to CalPERS’ active members, retirees and their families. In the meantime, a judge has placed into receivership 21 of Villalobos’ bank accounts; 16 properties in Lake Tahoe, Hawaii and elsewhere; an art collection; and five cars, including two BMWs, two Bentley’s and a Hummer. The order seeks to prevent Villalobos, who is reputed to be a heavy gambler, from shuffling assets or losing them at casinos near his Stateline, Nev., residence, court papers said.
Two other current and former CalPERS officials, recently retired board member Charles Valdes and Senior Investment Officer Leon Shahinian, were named in the suit as recipients of large gifts, including luxury trips, political campaign contributions and tickets to high-society Manhattan charity galas, without publicly disclosing them as required by state law. The two, however, were not charged with any wrongdoing.
CalPERS announced Wednesday that Shahinian has been relieved of his duties pending further investigation. Experts predicted that the ongoing investigation would not stop at Villalobos or Buenrostro.
“I would predict that there are other board members there (at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System) who have crossed the line in terms of the receipt of gifts and other deals with money managers that were improper,” said Ed Siedle, president of Benchmarke Financial Services Inc., an Ocean Ridge, Fla., consultant that specializes in forensic investigations at pension funds.
Corruption is widespread in public pension funds across the country, Siedle said, noting that a bribery scandal that started a year ago in a New York state pension fund has spread to California.
The year-old state inquiry could lead to criminal indictments against the current defendants as well as other securities companies and individuals that did business with CalPERS.
“This is the first of the hammers to fall,” said a person familiar with the state investigation.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also has opened an investigation of placement agent activities at state and municipal pension agencies in California and has issued subpoenas to two former members of the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pension Board, Elliott Broidy and Sean Harrigan.
Broidy pleaded guilty to bribery charges in a criminal case brought by the New York attorney general’s office. Harrigan is a former CalPERS board president and a former top official at the supermarket workers union in Southern California.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles is “monitoring” the other pension fund inquiries, said a person with knowledge of the office’s activities who could not be identified because of the nature of the situation.
For its part, CalPERS is continuing an internal probe of placement agent activities at the agency. That inquiry is being run by Philip Khinda, a Washington, D.C., securities lawyer, who assisted the attorney general’s investigation.
CalPERS CEO Anne Stausboll praised Brown’s office for filing its lawsuit. “We are deeply troubled by the apparent fraud committed against CalPERS,” she said. CalPERS is pursuing passage of a bill in the Legislature that would require placement agents to be registered as lobbyists and prohibit them from being paid commissions based on a percentage of the investment deals they close.