Pension officials with the Chicago Transit Authority need much more than a Ventra Card for some of the taxpayer-funded travel they’ve been doing in recent years.
The CTA’s retirement plan and health care trust spent close to $60,000 since 2010 to travel to places such as Honolulu, New Orleans, San Diego and Las Vegas for pension-related conferences.
That’s according to public documents the CTA plan turned over only after we sued the agency earlier this year for allegedly violating the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, the state law that guarantees public access to certain government records.
We had asked for expense reimbursements, among other documents, which the CTA plan refused to provide until the Better Government Association filed suit. (This litigation is in the process of being settled.)
The newly released records show the agency’s expenses include more than $20,000 on a six-night trip to Hawaii for five people in 2010, $4,400 on a three-night trip to New Orleans for two people in 2011, $7,500 on a four-night, four-person trip to San Diego in 2012 and about $12,000 on a four-night trip to Las Vegas for six people in 2013.
The fund’s executive director, John Kallianis, was among those who went to Las Vegas and San Diego. He defended the trips, saying the conferences were “rigorous” and “very well worth the expense.”
The fund’s general counsel, Jim O’Connell, was among those to visit New Orleans. He said the trips provide valuable education for staff members and trustees who are in charge of nearly $1.9 billion in assets for the retirement plan and more than $750 million for the health care trust.
“That’s a lot of money,” O’Connell said. “So you want the best people you can get and the most educated people you can get sitting at these meetings. You don’t want people who have not been trained to be making public-policy decisions.”
When asked whether they need to go cross-country for education, O’Connell said the conferences are “truly a place where you can get access to the best people and the best kind of practices.”
“If you’re trying to stay up to speed, you need to go to where they are having a conference, and there really is only two or three a year up to this level,” he said. “Really they don’t have something like this in Chicago every year.”
It’s worth noting at least a few CTA pension folks didn’t bother taking a CTA bus or train to O’Hare and Midway airports, from where they flew. We obtained receipts showing they parked at the airfields – at taxpayer expense. Some folks also took cabs to the airport in Chicago, and to get around once they reached their conference destinations, records show.
The CTA pension plan, which provides retirement income to about 9,000 beneficiaries (CTA retirees or spouses), has a funding ratio of about 60 percent; 80 percent or higher is generally considered healthy.
CTA employees contribute roughly 10 percent of their salaries to the pension fund while the transit agency – or, in other words, the taxpayer – contributes about 20 percent of any given employee’s salary into the same pot. Investments play into how much the fund grows.
The fund’s governance came into question several times over the last year when we reported that its now-former investment adviser was under a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation and that one of the CTA pension trustees was soliciting donations for a union charity from pension advisers.
Checking the pulse
The CTA pension fund recently sent out a letter asking annuitants 65 years of age and older to confirm they are alive.
The aim: Make sure nobody’s scamming the system and, therefore, taxpayers.
The letter, dated July 11, states the agency is “conducting a wellness verification of our retired participants to be certain that they are alive and competent.”
The letter asks retirees to sign an affidavit affirming they’re “alive and . . . able to handle [their] own affairs.”
Willie Means Jr., the retirement fund official who authored the letter, told us his agency “is trying to get a handle on how many people were actually out there,” but he insisted he doesn’t think there’s a big problem or widespread abuse.
There have been instances in other pension systems – locally and nationally – of retirees dying and relatives or others improperly continuing benefits.
Means, who’s been with the CTA fund since 2006, said it’s the first time this kind of letter has gone out since he’s been there.
So why send it now?
No real reason, just housekeeping, said Means. Kallianis echoed that.
Either way, the letters and affidavits themselves are pretty worthless, according to Louis Kosiba, who runs the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, a pension fund for suburban and Downstate municipal workers that’s considered one of the better-run retirement systems in the state.
“We have never sent out affidavit letters to my knowledge,” Kosiba said. “I don’t know if that’s really best practice.”
Kosiba said IMRF hires a company to match death records to its database on a weekly basis to ensure benefits are going to the right folks.
The CTA pension fund does the same thing – on a monthly basis, Kallianis said. The letters are intended to deal with, among other things, the possibility of someone’s death not being reported, or recorded inaccurately, officials said.
The pension fund sent out roughly 6,000 letters and so far has received about 5,000 responses, Means said. The agency will keep trying to reach the remaining 1,000 people; there are no plans right now to cut off anybody’s benefits, officials said.
This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times’ political portal Early & Often – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews and Patrick Rehkamp. They can be reached at (312) 821-9027 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Drews’ Twitter handle is @kadrews.