By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- Charles E. F. Millard, who until January ran the federal agency that insures the private pension plans of 44 million Americans, today refused to testify before a Senate panel that is investigating his role in the awarding of contracts under which the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.'s insurance fund was being shifted into riskier investments.
Millard invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination as the agency reported that its deficit had tripled in the last six months to $33 billion, even as it faces the prospect of taking over pension plans of automakers and other troubled companies. The increased deficit was due to a combination of factors, including $3 billion in investment losses during the recent stock market crash and a variety of obligations.
Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, told a packed hearing room that he has "grave concerns" about the viability of the pension agency, raising the prospect that it might have to be bailed out by taxpayers.
The agency's acting director, Vincent Snowbarger, said there are enough assets in the insurance fund to pay current obligations, but he agreed that "over the long term, the deficit must be addressed."
Millard pushed through a strategy in February 2008 that shifted the $64 billion insurance fund from having 15 to 25 percent of its assets in stocks, to one that would put 55 percent into a riskier combination that included foreign stocks, private equity funds, and real estate. The remainder was to remain invested in bonds.
Millard has said that he believed the strategy would pay off over the long term and help the agency forestall, if not prevent, the need for a taxpayer bailout. The strategy was unanimously approved by a three-person board composed of Cabinet secretaries, but it was strongly opposed by a number of outside specialists who said it was far too risky.
The agency's inspector general, Rebecca Anne Batts, testified at the hearing that Millard had engaged in "serious misconduct" by involving himself in the awarding of contracts to Wall Street firms that would implement the new strategy. Batts said that Millard played a role in developing the criteria that eliminated certain firms from contention for the contracts, and enabling other firms to get them. The contracts were awarded to Goldman Sachs, BlackRock, and J.P. Morgan. In her report, Batts said that Millard discussed job prospects on Wall Street with a Goldman Sachs official.
Millard left the agency on the last day of the Bush administration, Jan. 20. President Obama has not nominated a replacement.
Millard's actions are under investigation by several committees, some of which are examining whether he improperly tried to get help from the Wall Street firm in obtaining a private sector job. He has denied wrongdoing.
The pension agency, meanwhile, is considering whether to terminate the contracts, and it has slowed or halted various parts of the investment strategy while the matter is under review, agency officials said.
Kohl announced at the hearing that he would soon introduce legislation that would expand the agency's board, increase oversight, and prevent the director from being directly involved in the awarding of contracts.
UPDATE: Late this afternoon, a bipartisan group of six senior US senators said they had referred the results of the inspector general's audit to the US Department of Justice for a an independent review.
Signing the letter were Senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Max Baucus of Montana, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, Michael Enzi of Wyoming, Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, and Richard M. Burr of North Carolina.
The text of the letter is below:
The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr.
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20530
Dear Attorney General Holder:
In recent days, serious questions have arisen about the actions and involvement of Charles Millard, former director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), in that agency’s procurement processes. Attached is an audit report by the PBGC’s Inspector General that investigated troubling allegations relating to Millard’s involvement in the selection of investment firms to manage $2.5 billion in trust fund assets.
We trust that the Justice Department will engage in a thorough and independent review of Mr. Millard’s actions.
Thank you for your attention and should you have any questions, please have your staff contact Ben Olinsky of Senator Kennedy’s staff at (202) 224-XXXX or Emilia DiSanto of Senator Grassley’s staff at (202) 224-XXXX.
Edward M. Kennedy
Committee on Finance
Charles E. Grassley
Committee on Finance
Barbara A Mikulski
Richard A. Burr
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.