News: CJ Exclusives

N. C. Pension Experiences Largest Losses in Real Estate Investments

RALEIGH — The real estate investments in North Carolina’s pension fund lost about a third of their value last year; this was the worst loss among the categories of investments in the fund’s portfolio. Because information about specific real estate investments is not considered a public record, it’s impossible to know which investments brought down the pension fund’s value.

Overall, the $67 billion pension fund rose 15.08 percent in 2009, rebounding along with other investments in the broader markets. Stocks held by the fund bounced back by about 33 percent.

Real estate investments make up less than 5 percent of the fund’s portfolio. Their value at the end of 2009 was $3 billion.

About the only information state Treasurer Janet Cowell will release to explain the loss is a list of the fund managers as of Dec. 31, 2008, and the losses posted by each manager. No information is available from the treasurer’s office about the individual real estate investments made by those 39 fund managers. The managers received more than $65 million in management fees from the treasurer’s office in 2008.

“These real estate portfolio holdings are not considered public record,” said Heather Franco, a spokeswoman for Cowell.

Former state Treasurer Richard Moore got an advisory opinion from the state attorney general in 2006 concluding that records with information about the companies in which funds have made investments were trade secrets.

North Carolina isn’t the only state with real estate investments that tanked. In California, the real estate investments of the pension system for state employees plunged by 47.5 percent, more than three times worse than the index for that fund.

But the California Public Employees’ Retirement System does release information about the properties its real estate managers invest in. Closer to home, South Carolina’s pension doesn’t make real estate investments.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina sued Moore in 2008 to try to get information about investments he had made. A Wake County judge dismissed the lawsuit. The N.C. Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal in November, writing that it was reasonable for the treasurer’s office to deny “requests regarding the public records that were not in their possession and records which contained trade secrets.”

Appeals Court Judge Rick Elmore dissented. SEANC has appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“I hope at the end of the day that the court says we can go into the treasurer’s office and get what we need,” said Ardis Watkins, the association’s legislative affairs director. “I hope it’s there.”

Susan Carter, who oversees the pension’s real estate investments for the treasurer’s office, makes $210,000 a year.

One of North Carolina’s real estate investments that has tanked is a commitment to invest $100 million in Cherokee Investment Partners IV, a fund run by a Raleigh company. The state had invested less than $7 million in the fund by the end of 2008 but had paid out close to $1.5 million in management fees.

Cherokee Investment Partners, the parent company of the fund and another company North Carolina has invested in, is the subject of a federal probe in connection with failed golf and housing projects in New Jersey.

The New Jersey inspector general issued a report in 2008 finding that a company backed by one of the limited partnerships in North Carolina’s pension fund had mismanaged a project on a landfill site in Bergen County.

Thomas Darden, the CEO of Cherokee Investment Partners, contributed $1,000 to Moore in 2004. Darden did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Developer Gary Allen donated $8,000 to Moore in 2004 and 2005. Allen and his brother Randy Allen developed the Cannonsgate housing development in Carteret County where former Gov. Mike Easley bought a waterfront lot in 2005 at a $137,000 discount. Franco said the state’s real estate portfolio has made no investments with any of the Waterfront funds.

North Carolina’s treasurer is the sole fiduciary for its pension fund, meaning the treasurer makes the final decisions on its investments. Many states instead use investment boards. Judith Lohman, who researched the issue for the Connecticut General Assembly in 2008, found that only 16 of the 50 state treasurers are responsible for investing state pension funds and half of them use investment policy boards.

“That’s just such a vast amount of power, but it’s not on the radar,” Watkins said.

Moore, who has not returned phone calls from Carolina Journal, received at least $267,170 from 2004 to 2008 from employees and people connected to firms where the pension fund had real estate investments.

Employees and others affiliated with RLJ Development LLC, a hotel/real estate investment company founded by the Charlotte Bobcats’ original majority owner Bob Johnson, gave at least $62,000 to Moore. RLJ received $1.2 million in management fees in 2008 for three funds in which the treasurer’s office had invested $150 million.

RLJ also received $10.7 million as an incentive payment for the performance of RLJ Urban Lodging Fund LP. Information about the performance of RLJ Urban Lodging Fund for 2008 wasn’t available. Its weighted performance in 2007 was almost 17 percent.

Employees and people affiliated with Crow Holdings, a Dallas real estate firm, gave at least $42,000 to Moore. The treasurer’s office has $200 million invested in three funds with Crow Holdings and paid more than $290,000 in management fees in 2008.

Cowell also has received donations from real estate investors that do business with the state, taking in at least $51,000 in 2008 and 2009. Her top contributors were people connected to Sentinel Real Estate Corp., who contributed at least $20,100. The firm received $1.7 million in management fees in 2008 from the treasurer’s office, but the company’s Sentinel Realty V fund was liquidated in 2009 because of poor performance.

People connected with RLJ Development LLC contributed the second-highest amount of contributions to Cowell, $15,100.

Cowell has said that she supports public financing of treasurer elections, believing that outlawing campaign contributions from individuals would alleviate potential conflicts of interest.

Sarah Okeson is a contributor to Carolina Journal.