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Illinois settles SEC fraud charge over pensions

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Federal authorities recently announced that Illinois has agreed to settle a securities-fraud charge that accused the state of misleading investors about the financial health of its public-employee pension systems, which are now $96.7 billion short of what’s needed to cover promised retirement benefits.

In a cease-and-desist order issued by the Securities and Exchange Commissions, Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration admitted no wrongdoing in the way state officials borrowed money to pay pension obligations through $2.2 billion in municipal bond sales from 2005 to early 2009.

The SEC began its investigation in September 2010, shortly after signing an agreement with New Jersey over similar pension disclosures. Quinn’s assistant budget director, Abdon Pallasch, said the governor began making changes before the investigation started and that the SEC agreed his office cooperated fully in its review. Quinn, a Democrat, took office in January 2009.

The charge revolves around how well Illinois officials publicized their handling of seriously underfunded public-employee pension accounts. Quinn and the Legislature say they have made finding a solution this spring their priority.

The SEC alleged that the state made misleading statements about how much pension reforms would save or that it omitted statements about the full impact of underfunding problems.

“The state failed to disclose the effect of its unfunded pension systems on the state’s ability to manage other (spending) obligations,” the SEC order said. “The state also did not inform investors that rising pension costs could continue to affect its ability to satisfy its commitments in the future.”

The SEC reported that Illinois has taken several steps to improve the situation, including using attorneys devoted to disclosure, expanding exposition in the pension section of bond-sale documents, and establishing formal disclosure procedures, including review of proposed explanations by the five pension agencies that administer the retirement programs.

“The (SEC) order acknowledged the proactive steps taken by the state to enhance its pension disclosures and related processes since 2009,” Pallasch said in a statement. “The state began these enhancements prior to being contacted by the SEC.”

The order did note there were warnings issued after Quinn took office — including by his budget authorities — that the SEC said should have been included in bond documents, but the order doesn’t identify any bond sales that might have been affected or criticize any Quinn administration’s sales.

The order summarizes a sordid history of state pension underfunding dating to 1981, noting that by 1994, a $20 billion deficit in the retirement accounts nudged a Republican governor and lawmakers to adopt a plan to bring the pension pots to within 90 percent of full funding within 50 years.

But the money devoted to the plan was insufficient, and in the past 18 years the shortfall has grown by nearly five times, exacerbated by a two-year “pension holiday” agreed to by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and lawmakers, who cut pension payments in 2005 and 2006 by a combined $2.3 billion. None of this was adequately explained in bond-sale documents, the SEC claimed.

Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said it was her caucus that sounded the alarm, filing a complaint with the SEC in 2005 that claimed the Blagojevich administration, in selling $300 million in bonds in fall 2005, overstated the savings expected from pension reforms.

Blagojevich claimed the savings would be $3 billion, while a bipartisan financial forecasting agency of the Legislature provided several scenarios in which the result of the changes could range from savings of $3 billion to additional costs of $4.7 billion. Blagojevich was later sent to prison on unrelated corruption charges.

“Our work to expose these deceptive practices led to corrective action and improved disclosure,” Radogno said in a statement. “We continue to be a watchdog for the taxpayer and demand sound financial management practices, including a resolution to our pension crisis.”

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