Governor Charlie Baker’s years-long push to reshape the MBTA’s struggling $1.5 billion pension system rests in part on three crucial allies: his administration’s own appointees to its seven-person board.
Rarely, however, have all three been together in the same boardroom.
Over a two-year span, the administration’s trustees collectively racked up 15 absences at monthly MBTA Retirement Fund board meetings. One member — Baker’s former chief of staff — missed as many meetings as he attended over a year. And after he resigned, the seat sat vacant for months.
Taken together, three Baker administration appointees appeared at just eight of the 25 meetings the board held in 2017 and 2018, according to meeting minutes and agendas the Globe obtained through a records request. The stretch regularly included discussions about potentially transferring the management of the fund’s investments to the $69 billion state system, a move Baker first pushed more than two years ago.
The unpaid board has yet to take a formal vote on a transfer, adding to the frustration of Baker and T officials who view the state’s Pension Reserves Investment Management board and staff as far better equipped to handle investments. Under its current management, the privately run T fund has a $1.4 billion unfunded liability.
Baker, who has made corralling the T’s finances a cornerstone of his time in office, forcefully defended his administration’s appointees, and blamed any delay in taking a vote not on their attendance record but the T’s largest union — a contention its leader denies.
“As soon as the union wants to go there, they can call a meeting at midnight tomorrow and we’ll have a full contingent there to make the vote and make the decision,” Baker said.
The governor, who once described the T pension system as being in “freefall,” signed into law in 2017 an amendment that allows the state’s system to handle investment of the T fund’s assets.
But only in March did the board, which also includes three union-appointed members, unanimously approve a new policy that a fund spokesman says enables it to invest in the state pension fund, should the board authorize it. A seventh tie-breaker seat is currently empty.
The delay in taking a vote is rooted, in part, in a long-running legal stalemate. The T and the MBTA pension fund remain at odds about what steps need to be taken before a vote can even happen. The T and its largest labor group, the Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589, also remained locked in months-long negotiations over a new pension agreement, one of the documents the union says must be amended before any vote can happen — a point on which the T’s management disagrees.
Meanwhile, Baker-aligned appointees have accumulated absences far and above those of their union counterparts. Two of those trustees — James Evers and Craig Hughes — didn’t miss a meeting over 2017 and 2018, and James O’Brien, a third member and the Carmen’s Union president, was absent just twice.
“You’re a trustee,” O’Brien, the union appointee, said of attending meetings. “You have a fiduciary responsibility.”
When appointees don’t attend, it requires an alternate member — in the administration’s case, the T’s chief financial officer or a retired T lawyer — to step in their place.
“They will show up any place, any time to vote to move the thing into PRIM,” Baker said of the administration’s appointees. “The reason we haven’t moved into PRIM, the reason that pension system is still hanging out there and losing money every single year and not becoming part of the PRIM system, is because the union has not wanted to go there.”
O’Brien said he’s not opposed to investing in PRIM if it can give the T better returns, and pointed to the state’s success investing in private equity. A fund-commissioned report shows that, as of mid-2017, PRIM had a 11.4 percent net return over a 10-year period in that asset class, far above the MBTA system’s 7.39 percent.
“I’ve never opposed investing in PRIM,” O’Brien said, adding, “You’ve got to look at it and do your due diligence.”
But the absences raised concerns among those who, like Baker, have long called for the state to handle the fund’s investments amid its growing $1.4 billion unfunded liability, flagging returns, and the reliance on ever-increasing payments from the T itself.
“I’m hoping their poor attendance record doesn’t reflect a poor attention record to the problems,” said Greg Sullivan, a former state inspector general now at the Pioneer Institute, where he’s closely tracked the MBTA and pension fund’s finances. “I think Governor Baker should have a team huddle with [current appointees] Steve Grossman, Betsy Taylor, and Mike Abramo and say, ‘Let’s make a plan, let’s try to force the issue.’ ”
Grossman, who missed five meetings over the two years, attributed his absences to traveling for work for the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, where he’s the chief executive and works with entrepreneurs in 15 different cities.
“I do not believe that my absences from the board have undermined or impeded my ability to be an effective member of the T pension board,” he said.
Steve Kadish, Baker’s former chief of staff, served on the board for nearly 12 months. In that time, he missed six meetings, and of the six he did attend, he left early twice, board minutes show. Kadish, who resigned his seat in September 2018, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
That seat remained vacant for six months, until Abramo, a former T executive, was sworn in as a replacement in March. Meanwhile, Taylor missed two meetings over the two-year span, as did Michael Heffernan, who served as a board member before Baker appointed him as his budget chief in 2017.
Across that time, the board welcomed officials from PRIM for a presentation in February 2018, a meeting Grossman couldn’t attend. The fund’s lawyer later updated the board on a “road map” to investing in PRIM in November, when the third seat was already vacant.
The board also been without a seventh “honorary” member, who votes only to break tie votes but must be approved by both set of appointees, since August 2016. Baker said, “We’ve recommended a variety of people,” all of whom supported transferring the investments to PRIM, but the union hasn’t agreed.
O’Brien disputed that, saying there have no discussions about a seventh member, and fund officials said a name hasn’t submitted or considered at the board level.
The Globe was able to document how often board members attended meetings by requesting the meeting minutes from the fund, which considers itself a private entity and not bound by public records law.
The fund initially sought to charge $300 to compile the records, but a fund lawyer later waived the fee as a “cooperative gesture.” and provided redacted copies, while noting that the fund will voluntarily post meeting minutes on its website “in the future.”