Dear CalPERS, Great Work; Now Suspend the Rehabilitation Campaign

CalPERS, the largest U.S. public pension fund with approximately $218 billion in assets, can’t stop trying to burnish its tarnished image. But while its efforts are laudable, it’s also beginning to unintentionally remind everyone that it has an image to restore.

CalPERS newest move to rehabilitate its image is posting to its Website all “travel costs and statements of economic interests” relating to its board members and key staff within one month of their reimbursement. “This action will help ensure that our business is conducted in an open, impartial and fair way,” said CalPERS Board President Rob Feckner in a statement earlier today.

The policy change, which takes effect January 1, comes just weeks after CalPERS fired longtime private equity adviser Pacific Corporate Group amid criticism centering on former CalPERS board member-turned-placement agent, Alfred Villalobos. (California Attorney General Jerry Brown is still trying to sue Villalobos for allegedly bribing CalPERS officials.)

It also comes after CalPERS’ recent dumping of BlackRock — which oversaw a $500 million New York-based real estate deal that went south for CalPERS — and several other measures taken in the last 18 months to restore confidence in the pension. Among them: establishing new rules for communication between board members and staff about investment proposals; granting new authority to discipline board members who violate policy; and launching an outside special review to ensure CalPERS has not been victimized by placement agents and their large fees.

It’s smart that CalPERS would address this travel business, too. In August, the L.A. Times ominously reported that “The state’s embattled public pension fund for years allowed its top investment staff to accept private jet trips around the world and other luxury travel from financial firms with whom they were doing business — without disclosing any of the trips publicly, according to the court testimony of a senior portfolio manager.”

But now, it’s time to give the transparency offensive a bit of a break. At this point, announcements of new initiatives will mostly serve as reminders of the damaging controversies that CalPERS is working to get past.

The situation isn’t entirely unlike that begun by a bizarre voicemail left earlier this month for Anita Hill by the wife of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. In asking for an apology for Hill’s 19-year-old testimony of harassment by Thomas, Ginny Thomas simply reminded us of that unsavory chapter in all of their lives.