PERA at odds over investigation into board member

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A woman who makes decisions about coveted contracts to invest money for the state’s retirees, is accused of attending a conference as the guest of a big investment firm.

The Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) is tasked with protecting retirement money for 90,000 New Mexicans. Now, the board is at odds over an investigation into one of its members.

“It should not be an item on the agenda anymore,” said board member Loretta Naranjo-Lopez.

“I feel like it needs to be on the agenda again so we can move forward,” said board member Jackie Kohlacsh.

It all revolves around long-time board member Patricia French. The board thinks she may have broken the rules, taking gifts from people the board may someday do business with.

According to a letter from the board’s lawyer, French represented New Mexico PERA at a conference in Southern California earlier this year without board approval, and without paying the nearly $600 registration fee.

The same day of the conference, PERA’s investment committee voted to sign a $150 million contract with one of the investment groups sponsoring the event.

“Part of the way we protect the fund and its members is to protect the integrity of the board,” said board member Claudia Armijo.

In her response, French admitted she should have notified the board first, but said she didn’t know she had to.

“You’ve been on the board 13 years, you were chair for four years, but you did not understand you needed to report the travel?” asked Armijo.

French said, “No.”

She insists she only attended as a moderator and didn’t stay for the rest of the conference.

“Did I go? Yes, I did. Did I moderate? Yes, I did. Was I in and out? Yes, I was. Was I there for educational purposes? No, I wasn’t,” French said.

French also says she has proof she paid for her own travel, food and lodging, but some board members are still concerned.

“I haven’t seen any actual receipts from that,” said board member John Melia.

They also pointed to photos of French at the conference before and after the discussion she moderated, as well as information indicating sponsors chose the moderators.

“I wonder how you were moderator on the panel if you weren’t sponsored by one of the sponsors?” said Melia.

French told Melia the president of the organization holding the conference invited her to speak.

“No sponsor. Nobody else asked me,” French said.

KRQE News 13 looked into the president and learned she is also a major player for one of the investing firms that sponsored the conference.

The board voted last month to hire a third-party to look into French’s travel, but at Thursday’s meeting, some had second thoughts about the investigation.

“I just find it atrocious that we’re looking at paying thousands of membership dollars to go through this process that isn’t going to tell us anything other than she was a moderator,” said Naranjo-Lopez.

It’s no longer clear if the investigation will move forward. The chairman will decide whether to include the issue on the next month’s agenda.

KRQE asked the board’s executive director and board chair to comment on the investigation. The PERA board chair sent KRQE News 13 the following response:

The PERA Board of Trustees is a self- policing entity and, as such, is required to investigate matters related to Board Member conduct that comes to our attention.  Board Members are fiduciaries for the Fund and our 90,000 members, which requires us to uphold the highest standards of ethics and compliance with applicable laws and policies related to service as Board Members.  With regards to the current matter before the Board, it is important that we act expeditiously and in an open and transparent manner.  Until any investigation is completed we will not comment further. – Dan Mayfield, PERA Board Chair

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