SPECIAL REPORT: Blame for pension plan debt may go to those behind the scenes

Investment managers, labor unions and politicians often get the blame for exploding debt in government pension plans. But some critics point to another culprit: actuaries, the financial experts expected to make sure the plans are sound.

The case of one East Bay actuary shows the deep impact of inaccurate benefit calculations. Ira Summer and the firm he owns, Public Pension Professionals, have been accused of errors that cost local government plans in California and Florida millions.

Fresno and Kern counties were among the entities that sustained losses on Summer’s watch. In both San Joaquin Valley communities, the growing shortfall now threatens the financial health of pension plans.

Actuaries are responsible for the economic and demographic assumptions that ensure employees and employers pay enough into a plan. They estimate how much a plan will make from investments, how long retirees will live, what will happen to salaries over time.

Pension boards approve the assumptions, but board members tend to rely on the expertise of actuaries because the estimates are based on complex information.

Summer has made millions of dollars from contracting with local governments in California, some of which retained him for several years. In one year alone, he earned about $400,000 total from five California counties where his firm provided actuarial service.

In separate lawsuits, Fresno and Kern counties successfully sued Summer and his firm for professional negligence. Fresno reached a settlement, and Kern won in court. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District also won a judgment against Summer, and shoddy work has been alleged by pension managers in San Mateo, Tulare and Imperial counties.

Some communities may have skipped legal action because Summer let his insurance lapse in 2006, leaving little financial recourse for those who win suits.

Summer said he couldn’t comment for this story because he’s involved in a dispute with insurers.

Records show, however, that Summer has acknowledged mistakes in plans he handled. In 2006, when Fresno County’s retirement board had his work audited, Summer promised to correct errors, according to board minutes. That same year, Summer told a retirement board in Palm Bay, Fla., that his firm had erred in some calculations, according to that board’s minutes.

When one pension plan replaced Summer, the new actuary found that an error by Summer had had a significant financial impact, according to a report by the Conference of Consulting Actuaries. The report doesn’t identify which plan, and the conference would not elaborate.

Summer declined to help the actuary get to the bottom of the mistake and failed to cooperate in the conference’s investigation of his conduct, according to the conference, which took the rare step of publicly reprimanding Summer.

Fresno County’s pension debt shortfall has grown fourfold in the last five years, to almost $800 million last year – one of the biggest increases among the state’s largest local government plans.

Investment losses account for about one-third of that increased debt shortfall, records show. More debt was created by actuarial changes to the plan, including changes resulting from Summer’s work.

In 2006, four years after he was hired, Fresno County requested an independent audit of Summer’s work. Although aware of problems with Summer elsewhere, county retirement administrator Roberto Peña said the audit was done simply because it is good practice to do so.

The audit by actuaries in the San Francisco office of the Segal Co. turned up a number of problems. First, following Summer’s advice, the county required employees to pay for cost-of-living increases in the plan, breaking the previous practice of splitting that cost with employers, and differing from other plans across the state, auditors found.

The Fresno County Employees’ Retirement Association opted to reimburse the employees, further depleting the fund.

The audit also turned up problems with how Summer calculated inflation for some pensioners.

While those mistakes might not appear serious, they carried high costs.

“All of the changes that affect plan cost, the impact is multiplied for plans that have relatively larger benefits,” said Paul Angelo, the Segal actuary who audited Summer and later replaced him as Fresno’s actuary.

Fresno County has one of the most generous plans in the state. The county had to set up a supplemental pension because then-Gov. Gray Davis vetoed the higher benefit approved by county leaders in 2000.

As a result of corrections made after the audit, the county’s pension debt shortfall grew by almost $160 million, records show.

In its lawsuit, Fresno County’s retirement association accused Summer and his firm of causing $99 million in damages to the plan. The association’s attorney claimed Summer was running a “sham company” out of his home, and said the company had “a long and exotic history of failing to ensure that they have the assets or insurance necessary to satisfy the many claims against it.”

Because of Summer’s insurance problems, the retirement association agreed to settle the suit for $250,000 last year, Peña said.

In retrospect, he said, the association erred by not checking Summer’s insurance. It routinely makes those checks now.

In a brief conversation with The Fresno Bee, Summer said he continues to work as an actuary in California but declined to say where.