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Shine some light on MBTA pensions

If you get close enough, the MBTA’s pension fund will remind your eyes and nose of a Florida swamp. You’re pretty sure there’s nasty stuff down there, but it’s hard to see until something pops out of the muck directly in front of you.

Well, Merry Christmas to me. Something unexpected did burble up to the surface just the other day. It was a business called Fletcher Asset Management and an investment account to which the pension fund once entrusted $25 million. But now that account lies sadly empty. Looted might be a better word.

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One among several facts that make this particular story extraordinary — even by MBTA standards — is who sold the pension board on the investment in the first place six years ago. That would be Karl White, the man who had been running the pension fund just months earlier.

Shortly after White realized his 2006 candidacy to become chairman of the University of Massachusetts wasn’t going to fly, he quit the pension fund to become Fletcher’s chief investment officer. White quickly sold the MBTA on a new fund but convinced practically no one else to do business with his firm.

Now, White says he actually managed no money at the investment firm that collapsed and went bankrupt in 2012 — well after he left Fletcher. He doesn’t have a clue what happened to the MBTA’s millions.

This could actually turn out to be true. A bankruptcy trustee points his finger at Fletcher’s founder, Buddy Fletcher, who purportedly handled client money in ways that would make Charles Ponzi blush, for most of the investment firm’s problems.

So what was White actually paid to do? Reading the account he gave the Globe’s Beth Healy last week, White sounds like an unsuccessful salesman with a phony title (he called himself a salesman with “gravitas”) who exits — shockingly — when his bonuses dry up. He’s Willy Loman in a camel-hair coat. Maybe it happened that way.

As troubling as this story sounds, it is still relatively small potatoes to a $1.6 billion pension fund when you measure in dollars and cents. But that is hardly the only way to look at it and, trust me, people still notice when $25 million goes missing.

The MBTA pension fund certainly noticed, but it didn’t have to tell anybody about it. And it didn’t. This is the real point of the story.

The MBTA fund is run under different rules than virtually every other public pension plan in Massachusetts thanks to a strange twist in the law. It operates as a private trust — not a public entity — and can send most critics away to pound sand when they want more information about the way retirement funds for 12,000 active and retired MBTA employees are managed.

This is standard operating procedure at the authority’s pension fund and that needs to change. It probably requires a new law — the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the private trust privileges under current statutes two decades ago — and let’s hope someone is willing to champion that cause on Beacon Hill.

As things work right now, the MBTA pension board isn’t required to hold any open meetings and does not. It can’t be compelled to publish minutes of board meetings and does not. It isn’t subject to state public records laws or oversight by the state ethics commission.

The state's Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission, which oversees more than 100 public pension funds in Massachusetts, can’t touch the MBTA pension board.

The authority pension fund’s annual reports make the board’s own hand-picked auditors balk because they omit a standard explanation of results by management, something required by generally accepted accounting principles.

It’s worth repeating here that the disappearance of the $25 million entrusted to Fletcher was not disclosed by the MBTA pension fund. Details about that investment gone bad came out of bankruptcy proceedings in New York. Who knows what other ugly MBTA pension details are hidden from public view?

The MBTA pension board responds to questions about its unusual private trust status by insisting its obligations would never become the public’s burden if something really bad happened. This is a debatable legal point. But as a practical matter, what governor is ever going to tell bus drivers to take their retirement lumps if the authority’s pension fund can’t pay its bills?

This is why the MBTA pension fund should be treated like any public retirement plan.

Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at syre@globe.com.
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