Announcing Our Plan to Launch “CalPERS Central” Transcript Portal

As our companion post describes today, CalPERS plans to take a radical step against accountability and transparency by ending its preparation of transcripts for board meetings. These transcripts are readily available to CalPERS staff and board members, and can also be obtained by any member of the public by a Public Records Act request, which is CalPERS’ version of FOIA.

The result is that journalists, CalPERS beneficiaries, members of the legislature on oversight committees, and challengers to incumbent board members would find it much harder to examine CalPERS’ staff and board members’ conduct. Going through videos is vastly more time consuming, and forcing journalists in particular to rely on videos is an anti-press, anti-good-governance move. If you want to instill trust, reversing a long-standing practice at a time when the organization is already receiving largely negative coverage for its underfunding, questionable staff competence, and practice of casual lying, this is precisely what not to do. CalPERS looks like it has something to hide and is trying to hide it.

But fear not! If CalPERS takes this step, we will launch a CalPERS transcript archive, similar to our archive of limited partnership agreements. We are requesting the past three years of CalPERS’ open session transcripts to include in this archive. Having the transcripts be easily accessible via a simple download at Cfdtrade is much faster and less cumbersome than making Public Records Act requests. It should improve the quality of press coverage.

What CalPERS appears not to realize is that Cfdtrade has a large number of skilled readers who are willing to donate their time to worthwhile activities. In the past, that has included having professional transcriptionists transcribe interviews and videos. For instance, in late 2011 and 2012, we had a group of whistleblowers who had on Bank of America’s and PNC’s Fed and OCC mandated Independent Foreclosure Review give us detailed information about misconduct. Readers volunteered to prepare transcripts from extensive interviews and did so on a fast turnaround basis. When we’ve made requests for transcriptionists more recently, we’ve gotten speedy offers from professionals and near-professional level amateurs (for instance, people who transcribe as volunteers for not-for-profits).

Moreover, because having CalPERS be accountable and transparent is very important to CalPERS beneficiaries, particularly retirees who have ample leisure time, the odds are high that we could also recruit additional transcribers from the CalPERS retiree community if that were needed. We would probably solicit retiree transcribers regardless to spread the word about this new feature and drive more traffic to our site from people who have a stake in CalPERS matters.

Having Cfdtrade become the authoritative source of information on CalPERS for journalists and CalPERS members will greatly aid us in pushing CalPERS for better governance. It will lead our site to become an early stop from anyone interested in CalPERS matters, including CalPERS staffers and board members, who may need, as they sometimes need to do now, to see precisely what was said by whom in past board meetings. This archive would increase our credibility and importance as a source of commentary on CalPERS and public pension funds generally.

I hope that CalPERS members will circulate this post other CalPERS members, both to alert them to how CalPERS is behaving yet again as if it has something to hide, and to help solicit assistance, even from people who might be able to pitch in as infrequently as once a year.

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11 comments

  1. Norb

    Thanks. This is a really good idea. The idea of accessing talent in the service of larger a good is very inspiring- regardless of outcome. Putting some pressure on individuals and organizations that feel immune to the public will is long overdue.

    NC is also a good place to solicit small donations that could aid in making this process a success. For ordinary citizens, 20 dollars donated to volunteer transcribers to have a pizza dinner is money well spent. The same 20 given to the DNC is money down a black hole. Its a form of building effective agency.

    I also love the way the power elite are flustered when ordinary people start beating them at their own game. Its always the confused look of- “why, you can’t do that???” As if people should take their punishment with a smile on their face.

    Great work- once again.

  2. aliteralmind

    You remind me of our own site here in New Jersey. A journalist-friend created for publicly and permanently logging NJ open records (OPRA) requests. I’m an administrator.

    The original requester might get charged some ridiculous fee or delay, but once it’s on the site, it’s there for everybody. The request, the responses, and the documents.

    1. Jim Haygood

      It would be great to OPRA acting State Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio for the documentation supporting her counterintuitive hiking of the assumed rate of return on state pensions from 7.0% to 7.5%, when all of NJ’s peers are cutting it.

      Her public statements make clear that it’s simply a case of “we can’t afford it right now, so we’re kicking the can.”

      Nevertheless it would satisfying to expose the utter arbitrariness and lack of any sound financial reasoning behind her unilateral ukase which continues the state’s sleazy quarter century of systematically bilking its pensioners to fund current operating expenses.

      1. aliteralmind

        Go for it. You don’t have to be a New Jersey resident to do it. Create an account, search for Attorney General, and submit a request. You can review any one of the thousand other requests that have already been done as examples. Feel free to us on Facebook or through the app and we can help you.

      2. Yves Smith Post author

        It’s not just that. Per a suit v. the Kentucky state pension fund, Kentucky Retirement Systems, it’s a violation of fiduciary duty to have unrealistic return assumptions and/or not require contributions consistent with realistic return assumptions.

        This case was highlighted at the very beginning of the fiduciary training day at the Council of Institutional Investors meeting just this week, so it’s become a live concern.

        The one problem is I don’t think NJ has particularly good FOIA. One reason for focusing on CalPERS is that California has stronger disclosure requirements than most states.

        Let me know if you get anything. Would like to post on it.

  3. XXYY

    Really terrific. An excellent example of how the internet and an energetic and engaged blogosphere can (and has!) leveled the playing field between elites and the rest of us.

    In fact, one of the qualitative differences between “the past” and now is the democratization of the information system, which is something really new under the sun in human history. Obviously there will be (and is!) pushback by elites, who must long for the good old days when freedom of the press was confined to people who owned one.

  4. flora

    Great idea.

    As to “CalPERS plans to take a radical step against accountability and transparency by ending its preparation of transcripts for board meetings” – CalPERS looks forward, not backward. /s

  5. RUKidding

    Way to go, Yves!!!! Thanks for this so much.

    I donate to NC and encourage others to do so. This site provides very valuable services. I encourage everyone to provide whatever financial support you are able to provide.

    Yet another great NC idea!

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That is so kind!

      Yes, that would help because:

      1. We’ll have some tech costs in having my WordPress/development person set up the archives and upload the files

      2. Even with having the work done by volunteers, we will still need to coordinate them and I’d like to hand that off to one of the members of our team, which means paying them.

      Please wait until we see how this shakes out. I don’t want you making a donation to fund this initiative and then have the board vote decide to continue the transcriptions. That still could happen. The decision is next week.

  6. Chris Tobe

    As a Kentucky (KRS) Trustee there are no transcripts, but there is an audio tape, but the only entity that ever got access to it was the SEC in their investigation. My comments during board meetings were consistently scrubbed from the minutes. I even started printing out my comments to give to secretary for the minutes, but the rest of the board voted to have them removed.

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