EXCLUSIVE: New Documents Show Diocese Is Freezing Benefits For Many Teachers and Staff
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
The implications are profound, as potentially thousands of Catholic school teachers and staff will lose the contributions to the pension fund. They will receive nothing.
Questions persist about the overall financial health of the fund. In June, GoLocal unveiled Diocesan documents that showed that the pension fund for a large number of teachers and staff at Catholic schools in Rhode Island is economically unstable.
“The unfunded liability of the Lay Employees’ Retirement Plan will continue to grow and will become untenable in the near future,” stated the previously disclosed Diocesan document.
The document, entitled, “Recommendation of Finance Council Subcommittee Regarding the Law Employees’ Retirement Plan," dated October 2017, painted a bleak future for the fund, outlines the causes of the fund’s tenuous structure, and calls for immediate action to stabilize the fund.
The Diocese refused to respond to questions.
The new documents secured by GoLocal show that “As a result of this review, a decision was made that the Lay Employees' Retirement Plan will be ‘frozen’ effective December 31, 2018. A ‘freeze’ is not the same as a termination; generally, a ‘freeze’ means that no new employees can join the Plan, and that benefits will be fixed, and will not grow, after the ‘freeze.’”
In addition, the document states:
Participant: Current Employee (Vested on or before 12/31/18)
The benefits you earned through 12/31/18 remain unchanged, but you will earn no more accruals or additions to your account after 12/31/18.
Participant: Current Employee (Unvested as of 12/31/18)
If you continue to work for a participating employer and complete the 10-year vesting period, any benefits you earned through 12/31/18 will be vested.
If you leave employment before you reach the 10-year vesting period, you will forfeit all benefits under the Plan.
The Diocese is planning on holding a series of briefings for members of the retirement fund.
Unfortunately, the Diocese has refused to disclose the financial condition of the fund. As the retirement is a “Church Plan” it is exempt from federal and state disclosure requirements.
Diocese documents secured in June by GoLocal, the long-term future of the fund is unstable, "Even with the revised more realistic assumptions, if we make these changes, it will still take 30-35 years to fully fund the Plan."
Trouble for Diocesan Lay Employees’ Retirement Plan Cropped Up in 2009
There have been early signs of trouble dating back to 2010. GoLocal reported in September of 2017:
According to a 2009 article in the Diocese of Providence’s newspaper, Rhode Island Catholic, the Lay Employees’ Retirement Plan was in distress and the benefits payouts were being cut back.
The then-administrative secretary to the Lay Employees’ fund, J. Timothy Kocab, administrative secretary of the Lay Employees’ Retirement Board said, “The plan’s assets…have declined significantly in value during the past several months.”
In addition, Kocab is quoted as saying, "These are necessary steps in order for us to refocus our resources on strengthening the funding position of the Lay Employees’ Retirement Plan.”
Kocab told Diocesan employees in a letter, "Your employer remains committed to helping you build financial security for your retirement years.”
In September, the Diocese fiscal office refused to answer questions about the St. Joseph pension fund bankruptcy, the Lay Employees’ Retirement Fund, or any other church funds associated with the Diocese of Providence.
According to the Diocese’s website, the fiscal office was “established in 1973 to assist the Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence and related Diocesan Corporations in their administration of the temporal resources of the Church, the Fiscal Office operates in a multi-corporate environment and is responsible for the day to day activity of some 30 separate internal corporations.”
Also in June, two related massive lawsuits were filed simultaneously in state and federal court by the receiver in the collapsed St. Joseph pension fund - the largest pension failure in Rhode Island history.
The suit alleges massive fraud in the case which has created a hole in pension assets estimated to be in excess of $115 million. The suit was filed by the receiver Stephen Del Sesto and was prepared by the special investigator Max Wistow and his law associates Stephen Sheehan and Benjamin Ledsham.
The Federal Court complaint is 136 pages and includes a 21 count complaint filed against 14 Defendants. Similarly, the state court complaint is 101 pages and includes 16 count complaint against same defendants.
Related Slideshow: 10 Shocking Elements of the St. Joseph Pension Fund Lawsuit Against the Diocese and Others
Another Hospital Group Identified that the Pension Fund Needed $72M for Plan
In 2012, prior to CharterCare, then the owner of St. Joseph being sold to Prospect of California, another hospital group wanted to purchase Roger Williams, St. Joseph and Fatima. That group, LHP Hospital Group, identified that the pension fund needed a $72 million infusion, but their offer was rejected.
The $72 million was $58 million more than the amount put into the pension fund by Prospect, the eventual purchaser, in 2014.
All the Parties Knew the Pension Plan Was No Longer a Church Plan
Post sale of St. Joseph to CharterCare in 2009 and then CharterCare’s sale to Prospect, and despite knowing that for the pension fund to continued to be considered a “church plan,” the Diocese and hospital officials continued to list the hospital under the U.S. Conference of Bishops’ Catholic directory as “operated, supervised, or controlled by or in conjunction with the Roman Catholic Church.”
The lawsuit states that all the defendants in the suit knew this claim was false.
Tobin Misleads the Vatican
The lawsuit lays out that “Bishop Thomas Tobin did not disclose in his letter to the Vatican that the proposed asset sale increased the probability of the Plan failing. Instead, Bishop Tobin omitted that information and, in effect, said the opposite, that approval of the asset sale was actually necessary to secure the Plan.”
The suit goes on to assert, "On September 27, 2013, Tobin signed his letter as altered by [legal] counsel for [St. Joseph Health Services, CharterCare and Roger Williams Hospital] and sent it to the Vatican.”
The parties knew the implications, “These misrepresentations and omission concerning the Plan in the Bishop’s letter to the Vatican…all understood that Vatican approval was required for the transaction to proceed..”
Suit Alleges Fraud
The lawsuit is blunt as it alleges that, "Saint Joseph Health Services of RI, the Prospect Entities, and other Defendants violated ERISA, committed fraud, breached their contractual obligations, violated their duty of good faith and fair dealing, and otherwise acted wrongfully. As a result, they must be required to compensate losses to the Plan and remedy such violations, including returning all assets improperly diverted to the Plan, and to otherwise fully fund the plan."
Wistow and his team claim the remedy of violating the "fraudulent conveyance" laws in Rhode Island are severe and that the Plan -- thus the retirees -- should receive the assets, aka, CharterCare.
"They also ran afoul of Rhode Island laws prohibiting fraudulent conveyances. The remedies for those violations include that the Prospect Entities must turn over to the Plan and its participants the entirety of the assets they acquired in the 2014 Asset Sale, with no credit of offset for what they paid for those assets, or for the improvements that they may have made on the facilities. In other words, the Plaintiffs are entitled to a judgment awarding them these assets, including but to limited to New Fatima Hospital and New Roger Williams Hospital, or ordering that these properties and other assets be sold and awarding Plaintiffs the process from the sale up to the amount necessary to fully fund the Plan on a termination basis and to ensure the pensions of all Plan participants."
Quid Pro Quo
On August 14, 2013, key hospital officials meet with the leadership of the Diocese of Providence’s office to get sign off on the sale to Prospect.
According to documents, a meeting was convened which was attended by Bishop Tobin, Rev. Timothy Reilly and Msgr. Paul Theroux at that meeting the top Diocese officials signed off on the deal which cast the pension off as an orphaned plan. The deal also asserted certain promises critical to the leadership of the Diocese specifically that Roger Williams Medical Center would not engage in prohibited activities of the Diocese and specifically listed:
The suit asserts that there was a “quid pro quo for freeing New Fatima Hospital from the unfunded liabilities of the plan, and granting these extensive and perpetual ‘Catholic identity covenants’ for New Fatima Hospital and New Roger Williams Hospital.”
Violated Federal Law and Federal Oversight
As the hospitals left the control of the Diocese and were sold off in 2009 and then, the ultimate sale to Prospect, officials knew that the pension plan was no longer a "Church Plan" and thus needed to then fall under federal regulatory review under ERISA.
According to the lawsuit, the "deceit" create a federal violation of the law and de facto an "unlawful violation of tax law and ERISA."
Misleading the Vatican, Continued
Bishop Tobin did not disclose in his letter to the Vatican that the proposed asset sale increased the probability of the plan failing. Instead, Bishop Tobin omitted that information (removed from the letter was “spiraling and gaping liability’ which was in the draft) and, in effect, said the opposite, that the approval of the asset sale [to CharterCare] was actually necessary to secure the plan."
The lawsuit goes on to assert, ”These misrepresentations and omissions concerning the Plan in the Bishop’s letter to the Vatican were included by the defendants…and the Diocesan defendant, all understood that the Vatican approval was required for the transaction to proceed, and knew or were told that the Vatican must approve specifically the ‘pension structuring.’”
Most Damning - Email After the Sale
In order to continue the status of the pension fund as a "Church Plan" and thus hide the financial condition of the fund from members and keep from federal regulation, after the sale legal counsel for St. Joseph Health Services of RI sent an email to the Diocese and copied CharterCare and the actuary Angell, reminding everyone of the consequences of the Diocesan defendants not listing St. Joseph in the Catholic Directory.
"Saint Joseph Health Services of RI believes that if it is not included in the 2015 issue of the directory that the pension fund will no longer qualify as a church plan and that the loss of the status will require that they immediately notify the applicable governmental authorities that the plan is currently underfunded."
The Diocese officials than contacted the editors of the directory and made sure that the St. Joseph remained listed, according to the suit.
Funds Diverted to Priest's Pension Fund
One of the biggest affronts to members of the now failed St. Joseph pension fund was that when the sale of CharterCare was completed the Diocese received a $640,000 repayment of a loan from the Inter-Parish Loan Fund.
The Diocese received those funds and instead of applying them to the pension fund, according to the lawsuit church records show that the loan was partially repaid, but that $100,000 was diverted to the priest's retirement fund -- a fund that is reportedly fully funded.
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