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Pension fund investigation is troubling

For many people, on the coattails of hearing good news comes their pessimism-rooted instinct to question what bad news might be lurking in the proverbial shadows.

This month, on the state front, Pennsylvania residents received bad news first, followed a day later by welcome news that a tremendous “headache” apparently is about to get the right “pain medication.”

The bad news: As an Associated Press article in the April 8 Mirror reported, the Keystone State’s largest public pension system is the focus of a federal investigation.

Officials of the $64 billion Public School Employees’ Retirement System already have received subpoenas and presumably are busy assembling responses to the information that the feds are seeking.

The good news: The April 9 Mirror reported that the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry has promised a much quicker and easier unemployment compensation claims filing system in two months.

Scheduled to launch on June 8, the new system is built on modern software that will replace what was described as an “obsolete 40-year-old mainframe legacy system” that was a time-consuming, long-term-unproductive nightmare for the many people who were put out of work as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Unfortunately, both new developments are not without troubling aspects, however.

Regarding the pension system, usually referred to as PSERS, officials immediately erected a barrier around even the most basic information about which the general public, as well as the system’s beneficiaries, have a right to be apprised. As the April 8 AP article reported, pension system officials declined to answer questions publicly about what information was being sought by federal investigators.

Instead, information that leaked out about the federal probe at the time the article was being written came from three individuals briefed directly or secondhand on what is at the center of the federal scrutiny. The news media having to depend on such sources for insight reveals a degree of irresponsibility by those officials entrusted with managing such an important resource and being transparent about it.

For the record, those secretive officials and PSERS board members include lawmakers and members of Gov. Tom Wolf’s cabinet.

But the leaked information, if accurate, suggests that Pennsylvania’s general public as well as PSERS beneficiaries, continue to pay attention for new developments.

One of the three briefed individuals indicated that one aspect of the federal probe is calculations about the fund’s investment performance, which has an impact on payments into the system by taxpayers and school employees. The other major federal focus reportedly centers on land purchases in downtown Harrisburg, apparently tied to a plan for a new PSERS headquarters.

Denying information to the public that can and should be revealed is grounds for suspicion that might or might not be beyond what the situation might demand.

Meanwhile, in regard to the upgraded system for serving jobless people, the downside is that individuals eligible for traditional unemployment benefits will not be able to file claims for two weeks in June due to the process of transferring data to the new system. The state should work overtime to greatly shorten that expected negative impact on benefits recipients.

The two situations in question are indicative of how much the commonwealth’s problems extend beyond the routine difficulty in crafting a balanced state budget each fiscal year.

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