Why is the media treating CalPERS with kid gloves?

Yves Smith of the Naked Capitalism blog has presented irrefutable evidence that CalPERS CEO Marcie Frost submitted false information to the pension fund when applying for the job she now holds.

For example, despite only taking writing courses at Evergreen College for two semesters in 2010, Ms. Frost claimed (up through at least the end of 2016) to be actively enrolled in a dual degree program — a program which simply never existed, according to the college.

This is very similar to what happened with CalPERS CFO Charles Asubonten, who was recently fired for severely misrepresenting his work and earnings history.

When those reports first surfaced, CalPERS dismissed them as nothing more than as an attempted “character assassination,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

But when CalPERS own investigators confirmed what Yves had reported, the fund elected to terminate Asubonten’s employment. The fund never publicly explained its dramatic turnaround from blindly defending Asubonten, to moving to fire him.

Likewise, when Bloomberg asked CalPERS about the gross falsehoods and misrepresentations on Marcie Frost’s job application materials, CalPERS Board President Priya Mathur and Vice President Rob Feckner issued a statement declaring that:

The board’s confidence in Marcie Frost and her leadership is unwavering. These continued efforts to tear down Calpers and discredit Marcie and the broader leadership team at the system are nothing more than a spiteful attempt to attack retirees, beneficiaries and the promised benefits of public employees.

This actually reminds me of the culture I’ve observed at some small homeowners associations, where the board is comprised of people who don’t have a solid understanding of the issues they assumed responsibility for, and thus are reflexively and comically defensive when faced with any sort of criticism.

Mathur and Feckner’s claim that reporting on Ms. Frost’s misrepresentations is “a spiteful attempt to attack retirees” is obviously asinine and idiotic.

But their continued willingness to blindly defend those with a documented pattern of misrepresentation — the facts of which they don’t dispute! — suggests that the board’s primary factor in evaluating the fitness of an employee, or chief executive in this case, is their personal relationship with that person.

The relatively sparse coverage over this scandal is also a good example of how the media tends to be much more deferential to government agencies than private actors.

Imagine that California decided to outsource the role of CalPERS to a private business, say Koch Investments, just for the sake of argument.

This private firm is now managing nearly $400 billion in public monies to provide for the secure retirement of California’s nearly 1.9 million public workers and retirees.

Reports then surface that its CEO made demonstrably false statements in the job application process, before ultimately obtaining the position as head of the fund and the nearly $500,000 taxpayer-funded pay package that comes with it.

The media coverage would be relentless — and rightfully so.

Also, I can’t imagine any private firm being as arrogant and dismissive in response to these allegations as CalPERS has been. Remember, there is no dispute that the representations made by Ms. Frost to the recruiting firm were blatantly false, as discussed above.

Even if the owners of the private firm didn’t care about their CEO’s misrepresentations and were just as arrogant and dismissive as Mathur and Feckner are, their public response would at least pay lip service to the idea that it was a problem, with some PR statement about how they want to ensure all of their staff acts with the utmost integrity…etc.

CalPERS instead attacks the messenger and the intelligence of the public at large with its tried-and-true “those who report on serious ethical issues of our top executives are ATTACKING RETIREES!” nonsense.

That willingness to be so publically dismissive stems from the very different incentives facing public and private institutions. Namely, CalPERS knows it’s immune from accountability, as those tax dollars ain’t going anywhere.

While a private firm would fear losing their customers/contract, possible legal actions stemming from fiduciary violations, etc, CalPERS just needs to avoid a public outcry — which makes the media’s silence on this issue all the more troubling.