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editorial

After $25 million loss, MBTA retirement fund must open its records, meetings

The MBTA Retirement Fund does not hold public meetings or publish minutes, and it’s fighting a law the governor signed last summer to make its records public. This is a staggering show of arrogance, as the FBI and SEC investigate a failed $25 million investment for possible fraud. The fund’s board members must open its meetings and its records, and be held accountable to both retirees and taxpayers. And if the board resists, the Legislature should force its hand.

As reported by the Globe’s Beth Healy, the board that runs the MBTA retirement fund operates in a secret world in which standard ethics and disclosure laws do not apply. The story of the failed $25 million investment shows where immunity from public scrutiny can lead. In 2007, board members handed over $25 million to Karl E. White, the pension fund’s former executive director, to invest in Fletcher Asset Management, a New York hedge fund where he had taken a job as chief investment officer. White persuaded his former colleagues to make the investment just nine months after he left his top position at the pension fund.

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The $25 million is gone, and the hedge fund is in bankruptcy — but the T retirement fund has not yet officially reported the loss to its members or to the public. It routinely ignores warnings from the state auditor about omitting essential information from reports.

Under ethics rules for Massachusetts public employees, White would have been prohibited from selling investments to his old employer for at least a year. But those restrictions didn’t apply to him. The MBTA is a public agency, but the MBTA pension fund board is incorporated as a private trust, which makes it exempt from public records law and oversight by the Massachusetts Ethics Commission. The fund’s status was upheld by the Supreme Judicial Court in 1993; and based on that ruling, the board has refused to comply with a law Patrick signed last summer requiring the MBTA fund to make its records public.

Patrick calls the situation “troubling.” But that’s an understatement. It’s an insult to MBTA retirees and to the Massachusetts public.

Attorney General Martha Coakley launched an investigation into the case and urged the board to adopt more stringent ethical standards or face legislation to overhaul its rules. But state officials should not sit around waiting for board members who have already displayed contempt for transparency and oversight. The MBTA should follow the same rules as other public agencies and pension funds — and the state should swiftly pass legislation to make sure that happens.

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