By Brenda Flanagan
State Police estimated some 2,000 cheering, chanting union members gathered at the State House steps to shout demands that Gov. Chris Christie honor their contract and make full payments into their pension funds, a fight that’s ended up in New Jersey’s Supreme Court.
“No more! That’s the message I hope the courts tell Chris Christie! No more!” said Lizette Delgado-Polanco, executive director of the SEIU NJ State Council.
“I cannot afford to lose my home or my pension, just because the governor turns his back on New Jersey! And that’s why I will not sit down and I will not shut up!” said retired state worker Lisa Stevens.
CWA and other state unions called a rally to boost morale and signal politicians they’re watching, as they await the court ruling.
Gov. Christie’s offered only partial payments, saying the state can’t afford more. But critics contend the pension investment fund’s rotten with sweetheart deals for hedge fund brokers.
“Make no mistake about it! Christie is doing Wall Street’s bidding, funneling public dollars — your retirement — to politically-connected hedge funds,” said New Jersey Communities United Executive Director Trina Scordo.
Private brokers handling a little less than a third of New Jersey’s pension investments collected almost $440 million in fees and commissions a couple years ago, but that ballooned to $636 million in fees, bonuses and commissions last year. Compare that to the modest $10.6 million it cost New Jersey’s in-house Division of Investment Operations, which handles most of the pension investments. The Public Worker Retirement System — which watchdogs investments — recently demanded a forensic audit.
“It seems like — to us — it seems like we’re paying a lot more than we ever used to and we’re not seeing a whole lot of difference in terms of the rate of return,” said Tom Bruno, PERS chairman of the Board of Trustees.
“I need to get to the bottom of this myself because it’s troubling. We should’ve done better. We could’ve done better. And is it because we didn’t pick the best firms?” asked Senate President Steve Sweeney.
But New Jersey’s Treasury Department says prominent brokers earn premium fees and that politics has nothing to do with it. Lawmakers sent Christie a reform bill demanding more transparency, but he conditionally vetoed it, stating top notch hedge fund managers “…may elect not to continue a relationship with the state if their confidential fee arrangements are made public.”
Angry protesters point to a Colorado-based hedge fund manager who contributed millions to the Republican Governors Association and just received a New Jersey pension investment contract worth $100 million — but state pay-to-play laws don’t apply to contributions made to national organizations.
“Because you may know someone in a firm that is handling it, is that the reason you got the contract? I don’t think so,” said Sen. Anthony Bucco. And if you made a big contribution to someone’s campaign? “Again, there’s pay to play where that can’t happen,” he said.
For all their passion today, the protestors were not heard by Christie. He was in New Hampshire.