Riley: Misleading Municipal Investors in Providence

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


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Providence City Hall

Misleading the public about the finances of a municipality should be criminally prosecuted. That’s not just my opinion, it is also the opinion of some SEC commissioners and longtime officials.

Take a recent Bond Buyer Magazine interview with Peter Chan, Chicago lawyer and former chief muni officer in the SEC Chicago Regional office. His predictions should have Providence Mayors Angel Taveras, Jorge Elorza and David Cicilline very concerned.

MCDC Architect Chan's Muni Enforcement Predictions

Chan predicts the Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Justice are primed to prosecute high-ranking public officials, bond lawyers, and other non-traditional targets of municipal bond enforcement cases. Chan was the architect of the SEC’s Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation initiative, which incentivized issuers and dealers to self-report instances in which issuers made misleading statements about their past compliance with continuing disclosure agreements.

Chan said he believes there has been no slowing of momentum for muni enforcement since MCDC’s end - and that regulators may become even more aggressive going forward.

“I think it is quite safe to say that there continues to be consensus and momentum on SEC enforcement of the municipal securities market,” Chan said.

New SEC chair Jay Clayton has been historically receptive to the idea of holding individuals accountable, Chan said, which is in line with what the SEC has been trying to shift towards - either charging the firm or issuer (public) officials or explaining why it declined to do so.

“If entities commit fraud that means individuals commit fraud,” Chan said. “There will be a focus on that.”

The SEC has sharpened the tools it uses to hold individuals to account. The commission can charge individuals for “causing” others to violate securities laws, and it can also use the doctrine of “control person liability,” which the SEC deployed to charge the mayor of Allen Park, Mich. in November 2014. Control person liability comes from section 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and provides that an individual may be liable for the securities law violations of persons over whom they exercise control.

Providence has been Misleading Bond Investors for Years

There is no question in my mind that Providence and its actuaries and officials have been misleading taxpayers, retirees, the State and Municipal Investors regarding the true financial condition of the City. Only recently has Providence stopped redirecting employee contributions to pay other services or obligations. This expressly illegal in the ERISA world but allowed in the St Joseph's, Providence City Hall world of mirrors.  Chan says that practice may be under close scrutiny. “They basically ask a very holistic question: who are the people who contributed to the disclosure problems?”

From my perspective, if that happens to be Mayor Cicilline, Taveras or Elorza and/or other officials they will all hopefully be charged with abusing the public trust and even, securities fraud, which is a felony. Chan said he has observed an increasing willingness of the SEC to go after “gatekeepers” such as auditors in other markets, and expects that trend to carry over to the muni market.

The SEC last year charged a New York-based audit firm and one of its senior partners in connection with municipal bond offerings by the town of Ramapo, N.Y. Bond lawyers might increasingly become targets of prosecution in some instances, too, Chan warned.

When it comes to battling public corruption, the DOJ might be looking to increasingly take a page out of the SEC’s playbook, Chan added. While courts have ruled that traditional criminal public corruption, charges require evidence of a quid pro quo, the securities laws, which can also be the basis of criminal charges, do not. Prosecutors merely have to show that an official withheld a material fact, including a conflict of interest.

There is no question hiding the facts of City Finances helped Mr. Cicilline get his Congressional seat. That’s a huge abuse. Taveras tried the same thing. Maybe Elorza and his team will come clean during an “outside” forensic investigation of finances in Providence. If anyone has evidence of financial corruption and appropriation of pension dollars used for Municipal services they should contact the SEC and cc’ me.

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Michael G. Riley is vice chair at Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity and is managing member and founder of Coastal Management Group, LLC. Riley has 35 years of experience in the financial industry, having managed divisions of PaineWebber, LETCO, and TD Securities (TD Bank). He has been quoted in Barron’s, Wall Street Transcript, NY Post, and various other print media and also appeared on NBC News, Yahoo TV, and CNBC. 


Related Slideshow: Timeline - Rhode Island Pension Reform

GoLocalProv breaks down the sequence of events that have played out during Rhode Island's State Employee Pension Fund reform. 

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In the five years before Raimondo was elected, pension changes included a decrease in established retirement age from 65 to 62, increased eligibility to retire, and modified COLA adjustments.
Read the Senate Fiscal Office's Brief here.
(Photo: 401(k) 2013, Flickr)
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Prev Next

January 2009

Governor Don Carcieri makes pension reform a top priority in his emergency budget plan. His three-point plan included:

1. An established minimum retirment age of 59 for all state and municipal employees.

2. Elimination of cost-of-living increases.

3. Conversion of new hires into a 401(k) style plan.


See WPRI's coverage of Carcieri's proposal here.

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Rhode Island increased mandatory employee contributions for new and current employees. New Mexico was the only other state to mandate current employees to increase their contributions. 


Read the NCSL report here

(Photo: FutUndBeidl, Flickr)

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Rhode Island's state administered public employee pension system only held 48% of the assets to cover future payments to its emplyees.

"This system as designed today is fundamentally unsustainable, and it is in your best interest to fix it" - Gina Raimondo


Check out Wall Street Journal's coverage here.

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November 2010

Gina Raimondo defeats opponent Kernan King in the election for General Treasurer of Rhode Island using her platform to reform the structure of Rhode Island's public employee pension system. She received 201,625 votes, more than any other politician on the 2010 Rhode Island ballot. 

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April 2011

Raimondo leads effort to reduce the state’s assumed rate of return on pension investments from 8.25 to 7.5%.

Her proposal includes plans to suspend the Cost of Living Adjustment (which allows for raises corresponding with rates of inflation for retirees), changing the retirement age to match Social Security ages, and adding a defined contribution plan.

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May 2011

Raimondo releases “Truth in Numbers”, a report detailing the pension crisis and offering possible solutions. She continues to work to raise public support for her proposal.

"Decades of ignoring actuarial assumptions led to lower taxpayer & employee contributions being made into the system." - Gina Raimondo (Truth in Numbers)


Read GoLocalProv's analysis of the report here.

Read the Truth in Numbers report here

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October 2011

Governor Lincoln Chafee and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo present their pension reform legislation proposal before a joint session of the General Assembly.

“Our fundamental goal throughout this process has been to provide retirement security through reforms that are fair to the three main interested parties: retirees, current employees and the taxpayer…I join the General Treasurer in urging the General Assembly to take decisive action and adopt these reforms.”- Gov. Lincoln Chafee

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October 2011

Head of Rhode Island firefighters’ union accuses Raimondo of “cooking the books” to create a pension problem where one did not exist. Paul Valletta Jr. states that Raimondo raised Rhode Islanders’ assumed mortality rate to increase liability to the state, using data from 1994 instead of updated information from 2008, and lowered the anticipated rate of return on state investments.

“You’re going after the retirees! In this economic time, how could you possibly take a pension away?” Paul Valletta Jr (Head of RI Firefighters' Union)

Read more from the firefighters' battle with Raimondo here.

Check out the New York Times' take on RI's  pension crisis here.

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November 17, 2011

The Rhode Island Retirement Security Act (RIRSA) is enacted by the General Assembly with bipartisan support in both chambers. RIRSA’s passing is slated to reduce the unfunded liability of RI’s pension system and increase its funding status by $3 billion and 60% respectively, level contributions to the pension system by taxpayers, save municipalities $100 million through lessened contributions to teacher and MERS pension systems, and lower the cost of borrowing.


Read more from GoLocalProv here.

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November 18, 2011

Governor Lincoln Chafee signs RIRSA into law. According to a December 2011 Brown University poll, 60% of Rhode Island residents support the reform. Following its enactment, Raimondo holds regional sessions to educate public employees on the effects of the legislation on their retirement benefits.


Read about how Rhode Islanders react to RIRSA here.

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January 2012

Raimondo hosts local workshops to explain the pension reforms across Rhode Island. She also receives national attention for her contributions to the state’s pension reforms.  The reforms are given praise and many believe Rhode Island will serve as a template for other States’ future pension reforms.


Read about the pension workshop here.

Read Raimondo's feature in Institutional Investor here

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March - April 2012

Raimondo opposes Governor Chafee’s proposal to cut pension-funded deposits. She continued to provide workshops on the pension reforms.

“The present law is sound fiscal policy and should remain unchanged.” -George Nee (Rhode Island AFL-CIO President)
See WPRI's coverage of Chafee's attempt to cut pension fund deposits here.
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December 5, 2012

Raimondo publicly opposes Governor Chafee’s meetings with union leaders in an effort to avoid judicial rulings on the pension reform package.  In response, Chafee issues a statement supporting the negotiations.


Read more about Raimondo's opposition here.

Read about Chafee's statement">here

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March 2013

Led by the Rhode Island State Association of Fire Fighters, unions protest the 2011 pension reform outside of the Omni Providence where Governor Lincoln Chafee and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo conduct a national conference of bond investors.


Read about Raimondo's discussion of distressed municipalities here

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April 2013

The pension plan comes under increased scrutiny as a result of the involvement of hedge funds and private equity firms. Reports show that $200 million of the state pension fund was lost in 2012.

"In short, impressive educational credentials and limited knowledge of investment industry realities made Raimondo ideally suited to champion private equity’s public pension money grab." - Ted Seidle (Forbes)


Read GoLocalProv's coverage of the State Pension Fund's losses here

Read Ted Seidle's criticism of Raimondo in Forbes.

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June 2013

Reports show that the State’s retirement system increased in 2013 by $20 million despite the reforms being put into effect the previous year.


Read GoLocalProv's investigation into the rising pension costs here.

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September 2013

Matt Taibbi publishes an article in Rolling Stone detailing Raimondo’s use of hedge funds as a questionably ethical tool to aid with pension reform. 

Read Taibbi's article in Rolling Stone.

Read GoLocalProv's response to Taibbi here.

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October 2013

As Raimondo eyes the role of Governor of Rhode Island in 2014, more behind-the-curtain information about the 2011 pension reform comes to light.


Read more from GoLocalProv about the players in the pension battle here.


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