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Protecting the Pension System

Protecting the Pension SystemSince taking office, New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli has fought against the abuse of public funds. One of his top priorities is to protect the New York State and Local Retirement System (NYSLRS) from pension scammers.

To date, DiNapoli’s investigations of retirement fraud have led to 24 arrests and the recovery of nearly $3 million in retirement funds. Here are some cases from earlier this year:

Woman Pleads Guilty to Theft of Dead Mother’s Benefits

A Madison County woman pleaded guilty to a felony grand larceny charge for collecting $67,000 of her dead mother’s NYSLRS pension checks. When her mother died in 2009, Tammy Banack did not inform NYSLRS or her bank, and her mother’s pension checks continued to be deposited in a joint checking account. Banack agreed to repay the stolen pension benefits and received five years’ probation.

Man Pleads Guilty to Stealing Pension Checks

A Brooklyn man was arrested for cashing over $22,000 of his mother’s NYSLRS pension checks after she died. Jimmie Buie pleaded guilty and was sentenced to up to three years in prison. He was also ordered to repay the money. The office of New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman assisted in this case and the Banack case.

Town Clerk Admits Faking Retirement Benefits

Following a review of monthly retirement reports, the Office of the State Comptroller discovered that a town clerk had been unlawfully using a town computer to inflate her retirement service credit. Springport Town Clerk Deborah Waldron pleaded guilty, resigned and paid fines and surcharges. Her actual hours and benefits were recalculated to ensure she does not receive extra money she did not earn.

Brother Guilty of Bank Larceny in Pension Scheme

Joseph F. Grossmann, a former Albany resident, pled guilty to Bank Larceny after he used fake documents and other schemes to collect $130,624 in his deceased sister’s name. He was sentenced to three years of probation (including one year of home confinement) and ordered to pay back the money.

To learn more about how Comptroller DiNapoli safeguards public funds, and how you can help, visit the Comptroller’s Fighting Public Corruption page. You can also read about past pension fraud investigations.

Sunshine on the Retirement Savings Horizon

Headlines in recent years offer a stormy retirement forecast: “Americans Get a Grade C in Retirement Readiness,” “More Than Four in Ten Households Wrong About Retirement Readiness,” “The Shockingly Small Amount Americans Have in Retirement Savings.”

Unfortunately, research and statistics tend to back up these dire warnings. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, a significant portion of Americans — 42 percent — lack access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k), 403(b) or 457(b). Among those whose employers do offer a plan, only 49 percent actually participate.

In fact, research from the Federal Reserve suggests that 28 percent of people who haven’t retired yet have no retirement savings whatsoever. So, it’s not surprising that a report from the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis predicts that the “number of 65-year-olds per year who are poor or near poor will increase by 146 percent between 2013 and 2022.”

The Good News

There is promising news about retirement, though, if you look for it. Americans — particularly Millennials (those born 1979 through 1996) — are starting to save for retirement much sooner than previous generations. According to the TransAmerica Center for Retirement Studies, Millennials begin to put away for retirement at a median age of 22. Generation X workers waited until 27, and Baby Boomers didn’t start until age 35.

Sunshine on the Retirement Savings Horizon

Perhaps this earlier focus on saving is responsible for other good news. For example, Fidelity Investments reports record 401(k) balances in 2016: $92,500 at the end of the fourth quarter, which is up $4,300 from 2015. And, earlier this year, the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 55.4 percent of investors — more than ever before — are maxing out their individual retirement account (IRA) contributions.

That said …

Americans do have a retirement problem. New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli speaks regularly about the need for policies at the state and federal levels of government to ensure retirement security for everyone, including workers in the private sector.

As individuals, the solution is simple: We need to save, and we need to start early. NYSLRS members have the rare advantage of a well-funded, defined-benefit pension. However, your pension and Social Security benefits are only part of a well-rounded financial plan. Consider contributing to a New York State Deferred Compensation Plan (NYSDCP) account. NYSDCP is a voluntary retirement savings plan — similar to private sector 401(k) or 403(b) plans — created for employees of New York State and other participating employers. If you work for a local government employer, please check with your human resources administrator to find out what savings plans are available to you.

Stopping Pension Fraud

Stopping Pension Fraud is a top priority of Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoliSince taking office, New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli has battled public corruption. One of his top priorities is to protect the New York State and Local Retirement System (NYSLRS) from pension scammers.

Under the direction of Comptroller DiNapoli, NYSLRS has put in place a system of safeguards designed to prevent and identify potential incidents of pension fraud. One such safeguard uses data analytics to uncover and stop improper payments.

Post-Retirement Employment Violations

Our investigative efforts include a focus on post-retirement employment. New York State law restricts the amount of money public sector retirees can earn if they return to public service employment after retirement. The law permits public sector retirees under the age of 65 to earn up to $30,000 per year from public employment before their pension benefits are suspended.

As of this March, our review of post-retirement employment cases have uncovered more than $700,000 in benefit payments subject to recovery. For example, a former Newburgh City Fire Chief, who double-dipped by collecting $95,000 in pension payments while still working as fire chief, was federally convicted.

The “Muscle” in the Pension Fraud Fight

In some cases, the pension fraud NYSLRS uncovers gets referred to Comptroller DiNapoli’s wider umbrella program to root out public corruption and fraud involving public funds. The Comptroller’s aggressive initiative included partnering with federal, state and local prosecutors and law enforcement statewide, including DiNapoli’s groundbreaking “Operation Integrity” task force with Attorney General Schneiderman. To date, Comptroller DiNapoli’s various partnerships have garnered more than 130 arrests and $30 million in ordered recoveries.

NYSLRS’ partnership with DiNapoli’s “Operation Integrity” has resulted in the investigation, prosecution and recovery of stolen pension payments, exposing $2.75 million in pension fraud in recent years.

Here are some recent cases where pension scammers have been thwarted:

Comptroller DiNapoli and NYSLRS will not tolerate pension fraud. These arrests and convictions serve as warnings to those who might steal pension benefits: if you think you can steal the hard-earned benefits of NYSLRS members and retirees, you are gravely mistaken. When fraud is identified, Comptroller DiNapoli will work with law enforcement to hold the pension scammers accountable. The clear message to anyone who tries to defraud our pension system is that you will be found, and you will pay.

If you suspect someone of pension fraud, call the Comptroller’s toll-free Fraud Hotline at 1-888-672-4555, file a complaint online at investigations@osc.state.ny.us, or mail a complaint to: Office of the State Comptroller, Division of Investigations, 14th Floor, 110 State St., Albany, NY 12236.

What is the CAFR?

Last week, we published the latest Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR). This annual report gives a clear view about how both NYSLRS and the New York State Common Retirement Fund (Fund) are managed. This year’s CAFR covers our last State fiscal year, from April 1, 2015 through March 31, 2016.

The CAFR and Transparency

Each year when the CAFR is prepared, we strive to make sure the data is accurate, complete, and clear. For example, the financial section was prepared in keeping with accounting principles established by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, and reporting requirements outlined by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada. These principles set standards for financial accounting and reporting. By following them, we can see how we compare with other government entities using the same standards, ensure our data is consistent between accounting periods, and provide reliable financial statements to the public.

Comptroller DiNapoli is responsible for the Fund’s management. He ensures that investment policies and practices follow the highest levels of ethical conduct and transparency. The CAFR aids in transparency by providing historical data and extensive detail about the Fund’s audited assets, liabilities, investments, and transactions.

The CAFR provides many facts and figures about both NYSLRS and the Fund. Here are some statistics from the past fiscal year:

  • As of April 1, 2016, there were a total of 647,399 NYSLRS members; 612,294 in the Employees’ Retirement System (ERS) and 35,105 in the Police and Fire Retirement System (PFRS).
  • As of April 1, 2016, there were 440,943 NYSLRS retirees, 78 percent of whom live in New York.
  • As of April 1, 2016, there were a total of 3,040 participating NYSLRS employers.
  • The largest holdings in the Fund’s portfolio include:
    • Apple, Inc.
    • General Electric Company
    • AT&T, Inc.
    • Exxon Mobil Corp.
    • Microsoft Corp.
  • The Fund has invested approximately $9 billion with minority- and women-owned business enterprises since Comptroller DiNapoli took office in 2007.

This fact sheet (PDF) summarizes many other NYSLRS statistics you’ll find in the new CAFR. You can also find back issues of the CAFR on our website.

A Quick Look at the NYS Common Retirement Fund

Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli is the trustee of the Common Retirement Fund, which is the third largest public pension fund in the country. The Fund’s assets come from three main sources: member contributions, employer contributions, and investment returns. The Fund has two main goals:

  • Provide the means to pay benefits to NYSLRS’ participants; and
  • Minimize employer contributions through an investment program designed to protect and enhance the long-term value of the assets.

Over the last 20 years, 79 percent of benefits have been funded from investment returns. When you retire from NYSLRS, your monthly pension benefit—and the benefits of many others—will be drawn from this fund. Ethical management and a long-term, diversified investment strategy has made NYSLRS one of the best managed and funded plans in the nation.
Common Retirement Fund Assets

Strategic Long-Term Investments

The Fund’s investment program is designed to weather the ups and downs of an increasingly volatile global market. Our long-term target allocation for our investment portfolio is 22 percent in fixed income assets (bonds and Treasury Inflation Protected Securities [TIPS]) and 78 percent in equities, which includes:

  • Domestic and international public equities
  • Real estate
  • Real assets
  • Absolute return strategies
  • Mortgages
  • Private equity investments
  • Opportunistic funds

A diversified investment strategy helps us meet the funding needs for our current and future retirees while also helping to control risk.

The Fund is Well-Managed

An independent review of the Fund commended Comptroller DiNapoli and NYSLRS for strong policies and ethical management. By adhering to the highest standards of accountability and transparency, our members, retirees, and beneficiaries can be confident the Fund is being managed wisely.

NYSLRS Basics: Member Contributions

As a NYSLRS member, you may be making or have made contributions as part of your membership. When you make contributions, a percentage of your salary joins a pool of money called the Common Retirement Fund (the Fund). The Fund is also made up of employer contributions and investment income. By investing contributions, the Fund helps to meet its obligation of paying out benefits to past, present and future retirees.

What this means for you is that you, and other members like you, are all doing your part to fund your future retirement.

Types of Member Contributions

If you belong to a contributory retirement plan, you make required contributions. This means you must make contributions for the length of time listed in your retirement plan. Some members may contribute for only part or all their public service careers. If you belong to a non-contributory plan, this means you aren’t required to make contributions. Instead, you could make voluntary contributions over the course of your career, if your plan allows it. This would provide you with an annuity in addition to your pension when you retire.

(Check out the “Contributing Toward Your Retirement” section in your specific retirement plan publication to see what contributions you make.)

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Withdrawing Your Member Contributions

What happens to your contributions if you leave public employment? One option is to take your contributions with you. If you have less than ten years of service credit or aren’t vested, you can withdraw your contributions plus the interest they’ve earned. However, withdrawing your contributions also terminates your membership with NYSLRS. Once your membership ends, you won’t be eligible for a retirement benefit.

Another option is to leave your contributions where they are. After all, if you leave public employment, there’s a chance you may return as well. If you do, then your contributions will be waiting for you when you rejoin NYSLRS. If you don’t return to public service, aren’t vested, and have been off the public payroll for seven years, by law we must terminate your membership. Any contributions left will stop accruing interest.

If you have ten or more years of service credit, you can’t withdraw your contributions from NYSLRS. In that situation, if you’re vested before you leave public employment, you can apply for a retirement benefit at a later date (age 55 for most members).

(Read our publication “What If I Leave Public Employment?” for more information, particularly the taxability of withdrawing your contributions.)

If you have questions, visit our website to learn more about member contributions. Want to read more NYSLRS Basics? Check out our earlier posts on:

The Common Retirement Fund: Invested In New York

As the third largest public pension fund in the country, the New York Common Retirement Fund (Fund) is in an excellent position to help strengthen the New York economy. One way it accomplishes this is by investing in New York businesses. Like all of the Fund’s investments, businesses are evaluated on their potential to earn a solid return for the Fund. Under New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s direction, the Fund uses several programs to invest in New York businesses:

  • The In-State Private Equity Investment Program
  • The New York Business Development Corporation (NYBDC)
  • The New York Credit Small Business Investment Company (SBIC) Fund

By making money available through these programs, the Fund supports local businesses and creates jobs across the state.
The Fund—Invested in New York

The In-State Private Equity Investment Program

With the In-State Program, the Fund looks for companies in need of expansion capital. Businesses use the Fund’s investment to expand their operations and hire workers. The Fund has invested $820 million in over 300 New York businesses, with almost $325 million returned on exited investments. The companies in the In-State Program have also created or kept more than 4,500 jobs around the state.

The New York Business Development Corporation (NYBDC)

The Fund works with NYBDC to provide loans to small businesses in New York. These loans help small businesses buy property and equipment, expand, or start up. They also help create or retain almost 9,000 jobs each year. By borrowing from NYBDC, small businesses can receive lending terms that are often more favorable than other lending terms. Since the Fund partnered with NYBDC, they’ve loaned $362 million to 1,082 small businesses.

Invested in New York — Comptroller DiNapoli at Versa-Tel

Since teaming up with New York Business Development Corporation in 2007 to offer small business loans to returning military veterans, the New York State Common Retirement Fund has made nearly $1.5 million in loans to military veterans. On Veterans Day, Comptroller DiNapoli visited Versa-Tel, a veteran-owned telecommunications company based in Long Island, which received one of those loans.

The New York Credit Small Business Investment Company (SBIC) Fund

Last week, State Comptroller DiNapoli introduced a program that will make $200 million available for in-state investing. The SBIC fund offers credit financing to eligible New York companies, which provides another way to help smaller businesses expand their operations. The Fund is one of the first public funds to offer state-focused credit financing.

The Fund has New York’s best interests in mind by investing in local businesses and the result is two-fold: New York businesses receive the financing they need to succeed, and the Fund receives solid returns that get passed on to its members and retirees.

Tackling Retirement Security for Working Americans

retirement-security

Many Americans are lacking access to employer-sponsored retirement plans.

America is facing a retirement security crisis. The shift away from defined benefit (DB) pensions in favor of defined contribution (DC) plans is considered a common cause. The number of workers with a DB plan decreased pdf-icon (PDF) from 67 percent to 43 percent between 1989 and 1998, while those with a DC plan rose from 33 to 57 percent during that same time. The lack of access to any sort of employer-sponsored retirement plan is another factor: 43.3 million American workers didn’t have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan in 2013.

The unfortunate truth, though, is that many Americans just aren’t prepared to retire.

A State Solution to the Retirement Crisis?

A few weeks ago, we mentioned how AARP NY called for a state-sponsored retirement savings program to address this problem. According to AARP NY, Americans are 15 times less likely to open a retirement savings plan on their own compared to if their employer offered one. Even more startling, about 3.6 million New Yorkers working in the private sector don’t have access to any kind of employer-sponsored retirement plan.

At the federal level, creating a DC plan with automatic enrollment has been unsuccessful. The president recently asked the Department of Labor to clarify how states can move forward with state-sponsored plans. This could help states manage how to enroll employees into a 401(k), providing workers a chance to start saving for retirement.

Pensions: A Major Part of Retirement Security

Workers will need more than their Social Security and personal savings for a secure retirement. This is where more employer-sponsored retirement plans can help workers. About two thirds of working age Americans aren’t taking part in a retirement plan pdf-icon (PDF) . But even though DC plans are now more common than DB plans, that doesn’t mean they’re the best answer to providing steady retirement income. A DB plan provides a steady source of income for the pensioner’s lifetime. There’s no guarantee a DC plan will provide a retiree with enough or any income during retirement. If too many workers retire without an employer-sponsored plan, they could face levels of poverty in retirement.

Why Corporate Political Disclosure Matters

With the help of Comptroller DiNapoli, the New York State Common Retirement Fund is asking the companies it invests in to be more open about their corporate political spending. When companies spend money toward certain political causes, their shareholders may end up footing the bill. And as a shareholder in many large American companies, the Fund wants to make sure its investments are used wisely.

The Comptroller’s Efforts Toward Transparency

Election-Spending-Trend_2008-2014 Political Disclosure

In the election years from 2008 to 2014, the cost of congressional and presidential races climbed into the billions.

In 2010, the Supreme Court decided that corporations could contribute unlimited amounts of money to independent election efforts. Shareholders of these companies may not realize their money gets put toward these efforts. So, after the ruling, the Comptroller pushed for more transparency from the companies the Fund invests in.

One way he accomplishes this is through shareholder requests. These requests ask companies for a full, public report that lists their spending on:

  • Candidates
  • Political parties
  • Ballot measures
  • Any direct or indirect state and federal lobbying
  • Payments to any trade associations used for political purposes
  • Payments made to any organization that writes and endorses model legislation

This knowledge helps the Fund determine if it will still invest in these companies. Ultimately, the Fund wants to make sure its portfolio companies provide a long-term value on its investments, because that value will get passed on to its members, retirees and beneficiaries. If a company’s political spending puts that investment at risk, the Fund can withdraw as it sees fit.

The Fund’s Progress on Disclosure Agreements

The Fund has asked 52 of its portfolio companies to disclose their corporate political spending, and 26 companies have agreed to do so. Over the last year, the Fund has reached disclosure agreements with:

The Fund has taken a leadership role in corporate political disclosure, and Comptroller DiNapoli will continue to make it a priority.

Keeping the Pension Fund Funded

People are living longer, which means that recent retirees are spending more time in retirement than in previous generations. This also means that they are collecting a benefit for a longer period of time. That’s why Comptroller DiNapoli, administrator of the New York State and Local Retirement System (NYSLRS), ensures that the most accurate and current data available is used to project how long our members and retirees are expected to live. In doing so, NYSLRS lessens the risks of underfunding the benefits of its current and future retirees.

How the Pension Fund Plans Ahead

The pension fund’s assets come from member contributions, investment income, and employer contributions. Each year, NYSLRS calculates the funds it needs to pay current and future benefits. NYSLRS can’t know for certain how long a member will pay into the pension fund before retiring or how long a retiree will receive a pension. What NYSLRS can do, though, is make assumptions about each of these scenarios.

In this case, an assumption helps NYSLRS predict the expected future payments over the lifespan of its members and retirees based on their age and gender. By estimating how long NYSLRS can expect to pay its retirees, it can plan ahead and determine how much money the pension fund will need.

A New Direction on Assumptions

In August of 2014, NYSLRS’ actuary recommended a change in our mortality assumptions (pdf-icon PDF) based on the completion of a much anticipated study and report from the Society of Actuaries. This new approach to creating these assumptions considers the age and gender of members and retirees, and also their birth year. Birth years provide a more accurate way of looking at life expectancy as not all generational groups share the same life expectancy. A baby boomer who retires at age 62 may live until a certain age, but that doesn’t mean a millennial retiring at 62 will live until the same age. Using more realistic models of life expectancy gives NYSLRS a better understanding of what benefits to pay out over time.

NYSLRS can expect to pay out more benefits in the future as its retirees live longer, but it won’t come as a surprise. By planning ahead, NYSLRS is making sure the benefits you worked for will be there for you during retirement.