Thompson Lauds Financial Skills, Paper Says Not So Much

City's pension funds lagged while contributions to comptroller grew: report

City Comptroller William Thompson says he's got stellar money-management skills.

Not so much, according to a published report.

Thompson has banked his mayoral campaign on his financial prowess, which he says is proven by his command of the country's largest municipal pension system. But new info indicates he doesn't have much to brag about.

A review of the $80 billion enterprise shows it has continued to operate less effectively than other public pension systems, despite the fact the city tripled the amount of money managers it employs, along with the fees it pays them, according to The New York Times.

More than two-thirds of large public pension funds outperformed the city's largest fund, the New York City Employees' Retirement System -- and 80 percent of city pension funds have done worse than the average for similar funds across the nation for the last seven years, according to a common financial barometer, reports the Times

“It’s consistently below average, and that’s not where you want to be,” Edward Siedle, president of Benchmark Financial Services, a Florida firm that audits pension plans, told the paper.

Thompson's campaign says that pension funds grew from $75 billion in June 2002 to more than $90 billion over the last seven years, which they say is "strong growth" considering the tough economic environment.

Perhaps Thompson's personal profits from his relationship with the pension system have obfuscated his perception of how the funds are doing as a whole.

The comptroller has netted more than $500,000 in campaign donations from the system's expanding roster of money managers since he announced his candidacy for the 2001 comptroller race, reports the Times. And in some cases, records show money execs contributed to Thompson's campaign just months before they got hired to manage millions of dollars for the pension funds. Coincidence?

Thompson says no. The comptroller denies any relationship between the funds money managers donated to his campaign and their subsequent job offers. Money managers are hired after a meticulous evaluation of their prior investment results conducted by his office and external advisors, as well as interviews with the fund's trustees, who give the final word on hiring, Thompson told the Times.

“A campaign contribution will not help anyone,” he said in an interview. “The truth is, I don’t think that any one person here, whether it’s the chief investment officer, myself or someone else, can manipulate the process.” 

And it's not the money managers' faults the funds' aren't performing well, Thompson argued. It's the volatile stock market. 

But his viability as a mayoral candidate may depend on his ability to sell himself as a financial czar, which is inherently difficult because he's up against a billionaire media maven and Wall Street expert whose economic advice is sought nationwide. 

Thompson's role as comptroller is to serve as the city's chief financial officer. And if the public doesn’t think he's doing his current job well -- or that somebody else could be doing it better -- they're hardly likely to promote him to a more important one.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's campaign spokesman took a swipe at Thompson after the Times story raised questions about the comptroller's management of the retirement money of hundreds of thousands of former city employees.

"It's wrong," spokesman Howard Wolfson said plainly. "It's wrong."

But while Bloomberg's office was quick to denounce Thompson for his role in managing the pension system, the campaign neglected to mention that the mayor oversees four out of five of the city's pension boards and appoints the people who chair those boards and approves their investments.

Instead, Wolfson was content to say the comptroller is the person responsible for the funds' less-than-desirable performance.

So why hasn't the mayor raised any concerns over the last few years about Thompson's stewardship of retirees' money?

Wolfson had no comment.

For the most part, Bloomberg has praised the performance of the city pension funds, Thompson aides say. At a Tufts University commencement address two years ago, the mayor lavished Thompson with praise, saying, "I think he will go down in history as maybe the best comptroller the city has ever had."

Those kind words, of course, were delivered before Bloomberg decided to run for a third term.

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