As a member of the board that manages the San Francisco pension system, Wendy Paskin-Jordan is tasked with looking out for the financial interests of the city's taxpayers and municipal workers. A prominent financial executive and former San Francisco first lady, she helps oversee a $20 billion pot of funds that are the source of retirement payments for city teachers, cops and firefighters.
But as Paskin-Jordan this week faces a vote on her reappointment to the board, she appears to have blurred the lines between her responsibility to the city and her personal financial interests.
According to financial documents reviewed by the International Business Times, Paskin-Jordan has invested her personal funds in a firm called GMO, which also manages almost $400 million of the San Francisco pension system's money. The documents show that Paskin-Jordan invested in GMO while handing over far less money than the fund's stated minimum investment -- a potentially valuable perk.
Like many cities and states across the country, San Francisco has rules designed to prevent people who manage pension systems from placing personal money in the same entities in which public funds under their supervision are invested. Such rules are designed to prevent Wall Street money managers from courting investment from public pension systems by doling out special terms on the personal investments of pension overseers.
Disclosures that Paskin-Jordan may have run afoul of such restrictions have prompted calls for special scrutiny.
"The ethics commission needs to thoroughly review this,” San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos told IBTimes after the details of the documents were described to him. He is one of the elected officials set to vote this coming week on whether to ratify or reject Mayor Ed Lee's reappointment of Paskin-Jordan to the board.
Paskin-Jordan did not respond to IBTimes' request for comment. However, an official with the San Francisco pension system emailed IBTimes a copy of a letter from the agency’s executive director to the city’s ethics commission defending Paskin-Jordan. The letter says Paskin-Jordan was given the right to invest in the GMO fund at a lower level before she was appointed to the board, and that it’s therefore permissible. Paskin-Jordan didn’t personally invest in GMO until after she was on the pension board.
Paskin-Jordan is merely the latest in a string of public officials whose personal financial investments have tripped concerns over the overlapping interests at work in public pension investment decisions. Just before the New Jersey State Investment Council in 2011 moved state pension money into the control of the giant private equity fund Blackstone, the council chairman's private firm invested in Blackstone. In San Francisco, an investment consultant hired by the city to provide independent advice about hedge funds itself runs a hedge fund in the Cayman Islands.
The firm in which Paskin-Jordan has invested, GMO, has offices in Boston and San Francisco and describes itself as a "private partnership" overseeing roughly $120 billion in assets worldwide. The firm says it primarily serves institutional rather than individual investors.
According to San Francisco pension system documents, GMO has managed city pension money since 1996. The value of San Francisco's holdings managed by the firm are $388 million. At GMO's reported fee rate, that translates to roughly $2 million in fees paid by San Francisco to the firm each year.
In 2010, Paskin-Jordan was appointed to the board of the pension system, which has the power to continue or terminate San Francisco’s investments with GMO. On her financial disclosure forms filed in April 2013 and March 2014, Paskin-Jordan disclosed that in 2011, she invested in the GMO Quality Fund. She did not list that investment on earlier disclosure forms.
San Francisco pension system rules prohibit officers from "invest[ing] money with managers of private equity, limited partnerships and non-publicly traded mutual funds that are doing business with SFERS," which stands for San Francisco Employees Retirement System. While the GMO mutual funds are publicly traded, the minimum amount to be eligible to invest in GMO is $10 million, according to a GMO spokesperson. Paskin-Jordan’s disclosure form shows she was able to invest in GMO with between $100,000 and $1 million.
In filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, GMO says it may "waive eligibility requirements for some persons, accounts, or special situations" including for those with "a substantial ongoing business relationship with GMO." But SFERS rules stipulate that no officer may "accept a business opportunity ... a favor or anything of value from" from a firm contracted to manage SFERS money.
In the letter to the San Francisco Ethics Commission, SFERS Executive Director Jay Huish said that in the mid-2000s -- years before she gained a seat on the pension system board -- two of Paskin-Jordan’s former business colleagues who had gone to work at GMO gave her the right to invest there at below the minimum level.
“Commissioner Paskin-Jordan was offered and accepted that opportunity several years before she became a board member, and thus long before the [rules] applied to her,” Huish wrote. “The fact that she did not make a personal investment until later, after her appointment to the board, does not in my view alter when she accepted that opportunity.”
Santa Clara University’s Ann Skeet, who studies business ethics, told IBTimes that the situation is “problematic.”
“When you serve in a governance role, you are accepting several duties and one of them is to put the interest of the institution above your own, and to keep away from potential conflicts of interest,” Skeet said. “It is surprising to me that as someone who works in the financial industry, she wouldn't have a heightened awareness and take certain steps to make sure that she is not doing things that could be perceived as getting a personal gain from her role on the board.”