Pa. pension chair wanted political contract, ex-CIO told U.S.

Chester County millionaire Richard Ireland (right) walks into the Federal Building with his bodyguard, Brian Westmoreland (left) on Aug. 1, 2016, for Ireland's arraignment on fraud charges in connection with a pay-to-play corruption scheme.

In 2014, Thomas Brier, investment chief for Pennsylvania state employees’ $25 billion pension fund, said his boss came to him with an unsettling request:

Hire a politically wired Chester County financial firm — not because of its sterling reputation but because “promises were made” and the firm “was powerful in Philadelphia.”

Brier’s account, revealed in a recent court filing in the pay-to-play trial of Chester County businessman Richard Ireland, portrays then-pension plan chairman Glenn Becker -- Brier's boss -- as repeatedly pressing Brier to hire the Paoli firm.

Ireland, whose trial started last week, is charged with attempting to bribe former state Treasurer Rob McCord with more than $500,000 in campaign contributions and the prospect of a job after he left office. In return, Ireland wanted McCord’s help lining up lucrative contracts with the Treasury Department — and with the state pension fund, prosecutors allege.  As treasurer, McCord sat on the board of the State Employees Retirement System, known as SERS.

Brier told investigators that Becker grew upset when Brier balked at hiring Ireland's firm, Pacer Advisors.

In December 2014, Brier said, Becker told him he “was going to have to 'ding' " him for his "sharp elbows" after Brier resisted hiring Pacer to manage pension fund money.

Brier made the accusation against his boss in a complaint to the state inspector general and in interviews with the FBI, according to a little-noticed motion filed late last month by defense lawyers for Ireland.  Their motion asks the judge in the trial to exclude Brier’s testimony as improper hearsay evidence.

A lawyer for Becker, George Bochetto, said Monday his client “didn’t do anything bad.” 

“At no time," Bochetto added, "was he [Becker] ever served a subject letter or a target letter,” referring to notifications that federal prosecutors give people under grand jury investigation.

Becker still sits on the SERS board.

On Monday, a spokesman for the governor said Becker should recuse himself from SERS financial decisions

“This is the first we have been made aware of these allegations, and Mr. Becker should refrain from any involvement in asset management decisions until there is further clarification of his conduct described in the court filing,” said Gov. Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott.

State Treasurer Joseph Torsella said Monday that he would refrain from commenting until the conclusion of the trial and until he learns more about the allegations.

The accusation by Brier also seemed to contradict a statement last year from the pension plan.

Board chairman David Fillman, who replaced Becker in 2015, said then that “there are no claims that any other SERS staff or board members were involved in, or had knowledge of, the conduct underlying the accusations” against Ireland.

Asked about that Monday, a plan spokesman said it would have no comment while Ireland’s trial was underway.

Brier’s allegation that his boss put a squeeze on him to hire Pacer Advisors is detailed in a pleading filed Feb. 24 by Ireland’s defense team.  In the process of seeking to block Brier as a witness, the defense lawyers sketch out their understanding of what Brier told the FBI and the inspector general.

Prosecutors have  yet to file a response to the pleading.

Ireland, who turned 80 on Monday, has long been a major donor to politicians, giving mostly, but not exclusively, to Republicans.

In opening statements in Ireland’s trial Friday, prosecutors cited McCord’s influence over SERS as a motive for Ireland to donate to McCord’s candidacy in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial campaign, a primary race he lost to Wolf.

“If we could win this,” McCord said in a May 21, 2014, wiretapped phone call, referring to the election, “I mean SERS alone is such a big deal at this point.”

Later in 2014, prosecutors said, Ireland left a message on McCord’s answering machine, saying he was seeking to get a lot of business from SERS:  “This is important to us. We don’t want a damn bone.”

The defense memo says that Brier – who is formally listed as a prosecution witness  – has told investigators that Becker was pushing for work for Pacer in December 2014.

The following month, Becker told Brier that Ireland had made political donations, “promises were made," the “Irelands were powerful in Philadelphia,” and that Brier should expect to hear from then-state Treasurer McCord, and from Ireland, according to the Ireland memo.

Pacer director Sean O'Hara referred questions Monday to vice president Bruce Kavanaugh, who did not return calls.

Brier, 62, retired from his $252,000-a-year job with SERS last year after 24 years with the agency.  He did not respond to phone calls to his home seeking comment. 

McCord, awaiting sentencing in an unrelated federal case, is expected to be the star prosecution witness against Ireland.  He agreed to wear a recording device and taped Ireland and others after the FBI confronted him with evidence against him in his case.

Pennsylvania Treasury Department records show Pacer did business with the state in 2014 and 2015, overseeing the investment of about $350 million in public money and collecting a total of $1 million in fees. 

Treasury officials dismissed the firm in March 2015, shortly after McCord pleaded guilty in his case and stepped down from office.  The agency said Monday it fired the firm because its performance was lagging.

Becker was an appointee of Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican. He is president of Swarthmore Investments, which in the past counted the state, the City of Philadelphia, and suburban counties as clients.

In 2015, Wolf replaced Becker as SERS chairman of the pension board with Fillman, an elected leader in the AFSCME state workers' union. Becker remains a SERS board member. 

In his statement, last year, Fillman also noted at that time that the government's criminal complaint against Ireland "does not actually allege that any influence was successful" in getting SERS to hire contractors McCord favored.

 Indeed, Pacer never did land a contract with the pension plan.