A federal grand jury indictment charging two ex-CalPERS officials with fraud is yet another argument for greater public oversight of the state's public employee retirement system.
The indictment, unsealed Monday in San Francisco, names as defendants Federico Buenrostro, a former chief executive of the California Public Employees' Retirement System, and Alfred Villalobos, a former CalPERS board member.
While serving as a member of CalPERS' governing board, Villalobos collected $62 million in commissions for securing investments of pension fund money with his Wall Street clients. The indictment addresses $14 million of that total, paid to Villalobos by Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm.
Buenrostro and Villalobos are accused of creating phony letters to make sure that Villalobos got those commissions.
The two men already were defendants in civil lawsuits filed in 2012 by the Securities and Exchange Commission and 2010 by California's attorney general, alleging among other things that Villalobos promised and delivered a job for Buenostro in return for his help obtaining the fabricated letters.
Lawyers for both men deny any wrongdoing, and CalPERS tried to put a positive spin on Monday's federal indictment.
Rob Feckner, the CalPERS board president, told the Associated Press: "This is a long-awaited indictment of two former officials and is another step on the road toward justice for California's taxpayers, public employees and for all of CalPERS staff and stakeholders."
Maybe so, and it's true that CalPERS has instituted some new disclosure requirements for board members, but these felony charges buttress the case for reorganizing a board dominated by insiders.
As part of his pension reform proposal last year, Gov. Jerry Brown called for expansion of the 13-member CalPERS board to include two gubernatorial appointees with financial expertise and no family, financial or organizational ties to the $255 billion pension fund. He also wanted to add the state finance director in place of a state personnel board representative.
As Brown himself acknowledged, even that probably isn't adequate independence on what would be a 15-member board. By comparison, the governor appoints six of the 12 board members for the California State Teachers Retirement System.
On the local level, San Diego's 13-member retirement board has seven independent experts, and a majority of pension board members in San Jose are independent financial experts.
Regrettably, the CalPERS board wasn't addressed in the pension bill passed last year by the Legislature and signed by the governor. But Brown's proposed changes have been reintroduced this year by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael.
Levine's bill, AB 1163, is awaiting its first hearing in the Assembly Committee on Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security. In addition to legislative approval, any changes to the make up of the CalPERS board require voter approval.
State lawmakers should give voters the chance to make this fix to CalPERS' oversight as a safeguard against any future fix by CalPERS insiders.