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Ohio Teachers Pension Fund Rejects Review Findings

The $95 billion pension has pushed back against an independent review that it has not been transparent when it comes to earnings and fees associated with alternative investments like hedge funds and equity firms.

(TNS) — Ohio's nearly $95 billion pension fund for teachers has pushed back against preliminary findings of an independent review funded by retirees that claims the system lacks transparency and has paid excessive fees and performance bonuses for investments that have "massively underperformed."

"It is unconscionable for the [report's] author to make repeated baseless allegations implying wrongdoing 'in our opinion,' while also stating that [ Benchmark Financial Services] was not hired to detect or investigate fraud and did not attempt to do so," reads the response of staff at the State Teachers' Retirement System of Ohio that was presented at a recent board meeting.

The staff report responded to the first of what is expected to be a series of reports issued by Benchmark's Ted Siedle, a former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission attorney, financial forensics investigator, and co-author of the book Who Stole My Pensions?

Mr. Siedle was hired by the Ohio Retired Teachers' Association, which had independently raised $75,000 to fund its own audit of STRS books and practices to see if what they'd been told about the fund's current and projected health are true.

Among other things, it hopes to demonstrate that the fund can afford to restore 2 percent annual cost-of-living adjustments that were reduced and then halted in the name of bolstering the fund's long-term solvency.

STRS criticized Mr. Siedle's accusation that it has not been transparent when it comes to earnings and fees associated with alternative investments like hedge funds and equity firms. Mr. Siedle has sued the fund before the Ohio Supreme Court to try to force release of certain documents and has had some success in mediation.

"The author has written similar reports on public pensions, and a lack of transparency appears to be a consistent theme throughout" in addition to underperformance, high fees, conflicts of interests, and risky alternative investments, the STRS report states. "His approach to this report and complaints about public records laws are not at all unique to STRS Ohio "

Benchmark has since responded to STRS, calling the response "a defense of pension staff, created by staff, with the assistance of its paid consultants."

" STRS is well aware that withholding key investment documents makes it impossible for stakeholders to evaluate staff investment decision-making, as well as judge for themselves the costs and risks related to the investments in the pension's portfolio," Benchmark said. "These actions demonstrate STRS is so beholden to Wall Street it is willing to jeopardize teacher retirement security by keeping industry abusive practices secret."

STRS argues that Benchmark "incorrectly asserts that STRS pays $143 million annually to managers who perform no services and has suffered billions in losses due to alternative investments. These claims misstate STRS Ohio's investment costs and misrepresent our alternative investment benchmarks and returns."

The Ohio Retirement Study Council, which provides legislative oversight of the state's five public-employee retirement systems, has been slow in meeting its obligation to provide for a decennial deep-dive fiduciary audit of STRS, now five years overdue.

This back and forth between STRS and the outside auditor occurs as efforts are under way to raise another $75,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to pay for a similar look at the Ohio Public Employee Retirement System and its assets in excess of $100 billion. To date, nearly $22,000 has been pledged by about 300 people.

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