In April 2008, a longtime investment adviser named Chris Tobe was appointed to the board of trustees that oversees the Kentucky Retirement Systems, the pension fund that provides for the state’s firefighters, police, and other government employees. Within a year, his fellow trustees named Tobe to the six-person committee that oversees its investments, becoming the only member of the committee with any actual investment experience. It was an experiment in fiduciary responsibility that ended badly. “I started asking questions when things weren’t sounding right,” Tobe said. “And a secret session was held where they voted to kick me off.”
Several weeks after he was removed, the remaining members of the committee approved a $200 million investment in a hedge fund called Arrowhawk Capital Partners. Tobe, though he remained a trustee, only learned about the deal after the fact, while reading the magazine Pensions & Investments.
Former Kentucky Retirement Systems trustee Chris Tobe sits for a portrait at his parents’ house in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, U.S., on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. Photographer: Luke Sharrett for The Intercept Former Kentucky Retirement Systems trustee Chris Tobe, photographed at his parents’ house in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, on Oct. 19, 2018. Photo: Luke Sharrett for The Intercept
In the years since that big Arrowhawk play, Kentucky’s public pensions have descended into financial crisis, a crisis that threatens to have ripple effects across the state. “Poor, rural counties in Kentucky have two major economic drivers,” state Rep. Jim Wayne explained. “One is the school system and the other is the courthouse. Most of them have no other industry.” Of the 120 counties in Kentucky, Wayne said, “government jobs is the No. 1 employer.” By 2016, the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s declared Kentucky’s the worst-funded state pension system in the country. At that point, the state was meeting only 37.4 percent of its funding obligation — half the national median of 74.6 percent.
Tobe had never heard of Arrowhawk, and he quickly figured out why: Arrowhawk was a new fund whose first investor was the Kentucky Retirement Systems, or KRS. During his tenure as a trustee, KRS staff had proposed moving 5 percent — roughly $650 million — of the pension’s total holdings, then invested almost entirely in a mix of stocks and bonds, into large, established “funds of funds” — vehicles that allow investors to buy a basket of hedge funds, rather than risking everything on a single fund. Instead, the staff had steered the investment committee in 2009 to a startup fund with no track record. Tobe pressed the issue at several public meetings of the KRS board and eventually, in 2010, an internal audit revealed that Arrowhawk paid more than $2 million to a middle man named Glen Sergeon to land Kentucky as a client. KRS’s chief investment officer resigned during the course of the investigation (only to land a private-sector job as a managing director at a giant investment consulting firm). “Bad publicity, along with mediocre performance, sealed the fate of Arrowhawk,” Tobe wrote in his self-published book, “Kentucky Fried Pensions.” Two and a half years after Kentucky selected the firm for its first-ever hedge fund investment, Arrowhawk shut its doors.