N.J. Assembly tightens pay-to-play laws for pension investments

TRENTON - New Jersey lawmakers sent a bill to Gov. Christie on Monday that would expand restrictions on investments of state pension funds with outside money managers who donate to national political committees.

The legislation also would require the state Treasury Department to regularly publish reports disclosing fees paid to private managers who invest state pension funds.

Pay-to-play rules already prohibit the Division of Investment from awarding contracts to firms or investment managers who have donated to New Jersey political parties or campaigns in the preceding two years.

A 2010 federal law imposed a similar ban. Under that law, the Securities and Exchange Commission in June ordered Wayne-based TL Ventures Inc. to repay $250,000 in pension fees collected from Philadelphia and Pennsylvania after learning the firm's founder had donated to Mayor Nutter and then-Gov. Tom Corbett.

But managers can still donate to national committees such as the Republican Governors Association or Democratic National Committee, which can spend money on and influence state politics. Legislation passed Monday by the Assembly on a 53-15 vote would close that loophole by extending the State Investment Council's pay-to-play regulations to cover investors' donations to national political committees.

The bill passed the Senate in October on a 25-8 vote, with seven abstentions.

"The best thing to do is to remove even the appearance of any political influences when pension fund investments are made," said Sen. Peter Barnes (D., Middlesex), one of the bill's sponsors.

During a September meeting of the State Investment Council, which oversees the management of the state's $80 billion pension fund for public workers, board member Adam Liebtag asked whether the council should consider adopting such a regulation.

Christopher McDonough, director of the Division of Investment, responded: "It would basically shut down the alternative portfolio if we were to go in that direction."

The alternative portfolio, which accounts for 28 percent of all investments, consists of investments in hedge funds, junk bonds, private-equity, and venture-capital funds.

Between fiscal years 2011 and 2014, the portfolio returned 11.3 percent, according to a Treasury Department spokesman.

Even when the council learns of pay-to-play violations, it can grant exemptions. Last month, for example, the board voted to keep its $190 million investment with a fund managed by Prologis Management II, a global real estate firm, despite pay-to-play violations.

One of the firm's investment managers had donated $1,000 to the campaign of a New Jersey senator five months before the state closed on the investment. The board determined the violation was inadvertent and granted an exemption.

The bill's other provision, requiring disclosure of fees paid to outside investment managers, comes after The Inquirer reported in September that unlike Pennsylvania or other states, New Jersey does not publish those fees online.

Through public-records requests, The Inquirer found that in 2013 the pension system paid more than $410 million to alternative-investment managers, up from less than $10 million the state spent annually managing pension investments until 2005.

The state started hiring private managers in 2006.

Members of the Investment Council have defended the fees, saying incentive fees have helped produce greater returns for the pension system.


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