By DAVID CAY JOHNSTON
March 28, 1999
A quarter-century ago, Congress created the
Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. to make sure that the 42 million
workers with traditional pensions would get paid even if their
employer went bankrupt. The legislation was hailed at the time
as second only to Social Security in its significance to working
Americans. How well that agency operates is now being questioned
in a series of audits by the agency's inspector general, which
are to be made public this week, and by a lawsuit charging that
one of the pension agency's contractors defrauded it.
Two Republican senators who are familiar
with the audit findings, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Christopher
Bond of Missouri, said hearings would be held by September to
investigate how well the agency is run and why, for example,
nearly half of the 472,000 people covered by failed pension plans
that the agency has taken over have not been told how much they
are due each month.
Of the 200,000 people waiting for their initial
determination of actual benefits, about 19,000 have been waiting
for more than 13 years and some have been waiting for 18 years.
When these people become eligible to receive pension checks,
an estimated payment is sent until the actual amount is determined.
The audits, the lawsuits and the hearings
come as congressional Republicans are gearing up for a battle
to pass major changes in the Employee Retirement Income Security
Act that have long been sought by major corporations and business
owners. The Republicans say picayune regulations and poor operation
of the pension agency are driving up pension-plan costs and hurting
workers who change jobs often.
Advocates for pensioners say the Republican
proposals would allow business owners and executives to get bigger
tax breaks on larger pensions for themselves, while reducing incentives
to pay retirement benefits to workers who receive lower pay.The
audits found that "there were no monitoring controls in place
that would enable" the pension agency "to detect potential
unauthorized data modifications" like creating ghost retirees
in its computers and sending them money.
Joseph Grant, the pension agency's deputy
director, did not dispute most of the audit findings, but he said
they drew too heavily on conditions that the Clinton administration
inherited in 1993. Grant said that the pension agency, which
received five awards from Vice President Al Gore for improving
efficiency and customer service, had reduced the backlog of people
waiting to hear how much they are due to 200,000 from 300,000
and would eliminate it in a few years.
Grant said there was no harm from delays
in determining benefits, because when the exact amounts are determined,
lump-sum payments with interest are sent to cover shortfalls,
and pensioners can take months to return overpayments.
Grassley, the chairman of the Select Committee
on Aging, said he disagreed. "I think they have forgotten
what their mission is, which is to serve pensioners," Grassley
said. "Six to 10 years is just too long for people to wait
to find out how much their pension will be. We have to make this
agency become more customer friendly, like we did with the IRS."
One employee of the agency, who calls himself
Jim Dough, in order to avoid any retribution, has filed a lawsuit
on behalf of the agency against one of its biggest contractors,
Office Specialists of Peabody, Mass. He was joined by two former
Office Specialists employees and by the Association of Former
Pan Am Employees. Two years ago, the association filed a separate
lawsuit accusing the pension agency of mishandling benefits for
its 45,000 members.
The Dough lawsuit, unsealed on March 18 by
a U.S. District Court judge in Baltimore, says that a senior pension
agency official, Bennie Hagans, steered business to Office Specialists,
which received a number of contracts without competitive bidding,
and ordered payments to it expedited.
The suit also asserts that Hagans improperly
intervened when Myrna Cooks, the Office Specialists liaison to
the pension agency, quit to form her own company and was sued
by Office Specialists for violating her employment contract.
Hagans, the lawsuit asserts, "threatened Office Specialists"
with a loss of business from the pension agency unless it dropped
its suit against Mrs. Cooks and let her assume an Office Specialists
contract valued at $13.5 million. Office Specialists then settled
with Mrs. Cooks, whose business was awarded the contract.
Hagans, in two lengthy interviews, said that he had acted properly in every dealing and that his routine actions were being twisted by the plaintiffs, who he said had based their case on faulty assumptions.
Jesse Schaudies, general counsel for Randstad
North America, a subsidiary of the Dutch company that owns Office
Specialists, said, "We have no basis for believing there
was anything improper" in its dealing with the pension agency.