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Whistleblower Chris Tobe: 'State pensions worst financial crisis in Kentucky since Great Depression'


(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories examining Kentucky’s underfunded pension funds and the billions in dollars the state owes to current and future retirees.)

Welcome to Kentucky, the State of Bankruptcy.

(If states could go bankrupt, which of course they can’t. Yet.)

Kentucky is functionally bankrupt in that it grows increasingly unlikely every day the state can meet future obligations to retired state employees under the Kentucky Retirement Systems pension funds.

Last month, the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Center on the States found 34 states arent’t adequately funding employee pension funds at even 80 percent of long-term obligations. Four states, including Kentucky, have less than 55 percent of the money set aside to assure the liquidity of pension funds, according to the Pew research.

Kentucky is just behind Illinois when it comes to having set aside the lowest assets-to-liabilities ratio.

That problem is about to get much worse due to changes in contribution accounting rules for states and cities, with local governments having to disclose pension obligations that were hidden, according to the New York Times.

It’s the biggest story never told in Kentucky, even with the state’s most prominent whistleblower as a one-man media campaign, trying to get the public focused on the crisis.

Or at least never told in your neighborhood newspaper, says Chris Tobe, an investment executive who was once  an investment committee member and trustee at Kentucky Retirement Systems.

While the Lexington Herald-Leader has done some reporting on the billions in state pension plan shortfalls, the Courier-Journal has printed exactly one story, and it was by the Associated Press.

Why is this a story? According to Tobe, in a worse-case scenario, one of two things will happen … either taxes will rise exponentially, or thousands of retired state employees will see their pensions and their standards of living drastically reduced.

In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating millions paid to pension fund “investment agents.”

Insider Louisville: Break this down for Insider Louisville readers.

Chris Tobe: The big issue when you look at the Kentucky retirement plans is not just the Kentucky Retirement System, it’s the teachers (pension fund) as well. The legislature is basically supposed to put in 800 million …. almost a billion dollars a year into these. But they only put half or 60 percent for the last seven or eight years.

Which ones are you talking about?

The largest one is the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System, which has liabilities of $30 billion and assets of about $15 billion. And it’s one of the better funded plans.

How did they do investment-wise? Are they like the California teachers’ retirement funds that got killed (during the recession?)

Investments … being on the KRS board, I found lots of problems with investments and corruption. But in the big scheme of things … the investment (losses) have been in the tens of millions, the underfunding issues in the tens of billions. So, the (investment losses) are there, but from the material point of view, they’re not as big. As a board member, I thought it was a big deal … tens of millions … lost a hundred million on currencies and all this stupid stuff. But in the grand scheme of things, the underfunding is really the big issue.

Currencies? Currency arbitrage is the trickiest thing in the world. Why would a state retirement fund have a position in currency?

Oh yeah! Yeah! We lost $50 million in doing it. And paid them $7 million in fees. Seven millions in fees is why. Kickbacks from that.

Wait a minute. Even if you’re running an insurance company or any big institutional investor, you’re not really hanging it out on currency trading ….

You have to realize, I was put on the board by the governor’s people to be an investment expert in 2008.

 2008? Oh, boy, that’s good timing …

Yeah. August 2009, I’m the only investment professional on the (KRS) board, and I get kicked off the investment committee.

So you’re a Series 6? Series 7 (stock broker)?

No, I’m a CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst, one of the top credentials for investment and financial executives.) No one else has any experience. So, I get kicked off in August (2009). In October, they hire a startup hedge fund manager who’s never managed anyone’s fund. They seed a hedge fund. They seed the currency manager. At the first committee I’m not there, so I can’t stop it. The hedge fund manager is part of the SEC investigation. He was paid a $2 million placement agent fee. Who knows where that two million went. The currency manager made $7 million. It’s all about kick-backs and graft. It doesn’t have anything to do with investments or right and wrong. It’s all about who can get some kick back.

Did the press cover this?

Press won’t cover it.

What do you mean the press won’t cover it? You have a state that’s functionally bankrupt and nobody is interested? CN2 did an interview with you …..

The Herald-Leader has run one story on it. The CJ hadn’t reported on the underfunding till last week. The first story ever. Certain political people have kept it suppressed for the last four or five years. The media has their favorites .… if they tell (reporters) not to print something, they won’t print it ….

Well, having worked for Business First for a long time ….

Why hasn’t Business First ever covered this? Crane’s, the business publication in Chicago, has had reporters dedicated to this for four or five years! Our problems are just as bad as in Illinois. Business First hasn’t covered it at all!

Well, I guess the average person is going to say, “This seems like its a lot bigger deal than Ritchie Farmer and the rifles ….” But they’re also going to be skeptical a story this big can be swept under the rug.

It’s a thousand times bigger than (Farmer.) This is going to affect our entire state for years. Have you been following what’s going on in Illinois? Start looking at that a little closer.

What’s the worst case scenario here?

(Laughs.) State files for bankruptcy.

 Like Jefferson County, Alabama? But states can’t file for bankruptcy ….

Well, that’s the question. Here’s the deal. Two years ago, Newt Gingrich and Jeb Bush co-wrote a piece in the LA Times suggesting we need to constitutionally allow states to go bankrupt so they can get out of these pension obligations. I’ll admit I’m a big Democrat, and that’s the Republican agenda. They want bankruptcy. That’s the easiest way to get rid of this (financial obligation). You know what’s happening in Illinois? State income taxes have gone up 30 percent and corporate income taxes have gone up 60 percent. They’re cutting services and they still haven’t begun to fill this hole. This is the most pressing thing … and everyone is clueless.

You’re scaring me ….

This is the worst financial crisis in this state since at least since the Great Depression.

Remember there’s something else in this mess besides pensions … it’s retiree health care. Every retiree has been promised the same level of health care a state worker gets. Now, for policemen and firemen who retire between 45 and 65, that’s really expensive. Once someone gets over 65 … and gets a Medicare supplement … but it’s still a lot of money. Those things aren’t funded either. Those are multi-billion deficits as well. Sometimes they’re lumped in with the pensions, sometimes they’re not, because they’re under the same system. The funding issues are basically irresponsible legislators of both parties. Both governors.

I don’t remember Beshear and Williams fighting over which one would get to solve this problem.

Solving this problems is a political disaster. Think about it. What are your two solutions? Cutting services or cutting pensions.

Which pension funds are in the worst shape?

KERS, all the main state workers, is the most endangered. It has liabilities around 15 billion and assets around 3 to 4 billion. It was 31 percent funded as of June 11, but (equities) markets have been flat and we increase our liability 7.75 percent or 8 percent each year, and we’ve seen negative cash flow. So it’s in the twenties.

This includes, say, the state police?

No, they have their own, which is just as bad. It would be all the state workers in all the cabinets. All the Frankfort people, and some people outside. It is – with a couple of the Illinois plans – the worst funded plan in the country. Why we wouldn’t have some of the problems of Illinois is because (Kentucky officials) have been able to keep it out of the press.

You see the irony, right? Richie Farmer gets investigated by Adam Edelen, right? Who issues a audit. Edelen is on the front pages of the Courier-Journal and Herald-Leader with his findings, right? What Farmer did was trivial, right? Silly, annoying and embarrassing for the state, but trivial in terms of money. We’re talking about billions in (pension) shortfalls in a state that only has four million people ….

Yeah, these pensions blow more in a day than Richie Farmer did in eight years.

The other retirement system is CERS (County Employees Retirement System), which is all county employees, city employees, city police. CERS by law, they have to make 100 percent of payments each year. Cities and counties have been complaining about it, but they have a fund that’s at least 60-percent funded right now. It has about $15 billion in liabilities, about $10 billion in assets. It is pretty average compared to other plans around the nation. Teachers, they’ve only been contributing 75 percent of what they were supposed to for five or six years, then they paid a big chunk in 2010. But they’ve been paying less since then. Teachers is the next KERS, the one that could actually run out of cash in two years. What happens then of course is the question.

When will S&Ps and Moody’s downgrade Kentucky’s credit rating?

They’re coming to the table now. Their assumptions are, “Well, states should have no problem with this because states have unlimited taxing power.” They theoretically do. One of my points is, CERS – city and county, though Lexington isn’t in there – Louisville employees are well over 50 percent of that fund. My thesis is, Louisville would be far better off to get their people out of these (pension funds) and run their own. St. Louis runs their own. Cincinnati runs their own. Nashville runs their own city plans.

Ever feel like the guy who’s screaming, “The house is on fire!” when everyone else is saying, “Yeah, but it’s so nice and warm inside right now.” Do you ever point to (the recent New York Times) story and say, “See?”

Oh, I’ve been emailing with Mary (New York Times reporter Mary Williams Walsh) for the last month. I’ve run her through the pension stuff. She didn’t quote me in the story … but I’m starting to talk now I’m off the board.

Why do you think this isn’t get any traction?

Because darlings of the Courier and Herald-Leader – Crit Luallen and Jack Conway – don’t want it to.

Where is the (former) auditor? Where is the attorney general?

They’re part of the problem.


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