The Employee Benefits Security Administration should examine a random sample of pension and retirement plans as well as plans that spark complaints.

An official at the U.S. Government Accountability Office makes that argument in a report comparing EBSA, an arm of the U.S. Department of Labor, unfavorably to the Internal Revenue Service.

EBSA and the IRS each use a staff of more than 380 investigators to oversee a universe of about 700,000 pension and retirement plans, according to GAO figures.

EBSA investigated 7,752 plans in the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2005, closed 3,978 civil and criminal investigations that year, and received 985 voluntary compliance applications.

The IRS closed 8,230 plan exams, made 39,864 determinations and received 1,707 voluntary compliance applications, the GAO reports.

The IRS has a systematic process for selecting ordinary plans for exams, while EBSA seems to rely heavily on complaints to choose exam targets, Barbara Bovbjerg, a GAO director, writes in a report summarizing GAO officials’ analysis of EBSA’s performance.

“Given the ratio of employee benefit plans to investigators, EBSA’s limited presence may create an incentive for fiduciaries or plan sponsors to take compliance lightly,” Bovbjerg writes.

EBSA also may need a risk-assessment team to identify new plan problems before they become pervasive, Bovbjerg writes.

Bradford Campbell, the acting assistant Labor Department secretary in charge of EBSA, responded with a comment letter rejecting Bovbjerg’s recommendation that the GAO adopt a routine compliance exam system.

“In past years, we conducted routine compliance examinations as a regular part of our investigative program,” Campbell writes. “However, this resulted in a low percentage of cases with violations found and corrected, with no discernable deterrent effect.

EBSA now uses a variety methods to target exams, and about 75% of 2005 civil cases closed resulted in corrected violations, Campbell writes.

A copy of the GAO report and EBSA’s response is on the Web at Document Link