(updated with correction)
Officials at the Pew Charitable Trusts are finding their motives questioned as they move beyond their traditional role as researchers into providing technical assistance to troubled public retirement systems.
For the researchers working on Pew's Public Sector Retirement Systems Project, which provides research and technical assistance, the foundation's more hands-on role to help policymakers try to fix pension problems is a natural extension of their research work.
“Our research has shown that a number of states have put themselves in (an unsustainable) position, so we focused on the need for smart, thoughtful reforms,” said David Draine, senior researcher at Pew in Washington. “We wanted to be able to give them the technical assistance to let them make the decisions on their own.”
For public pension advocates, however, Pew's higher profile represents a troubling foray into activism that coincides with its partnership with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in Houston. The foundation underwrites several conservative approaches to causes including education and pension reform. The foundation provides financial assistance and staff, including economist Josh McGee, vice president of the foundation's public accountability project, which covers public pension funds. Pew officials do not disclose their funding agreements.
Pew has “done quality work. Why Pew found it necessary to get in bed with an advocacy group is beyond me,” said Meredith Williams, Denver-based executive director of the National Council on Teacher Retirement, and former executive director of the $43 billion Public Employees' Retirement Association of Colorado, Denver. “It's hard to tell who is leading the parade. How can you be a research organization when you are also an advocate? I find it very troubling.”
The foundation, which listed assets of $725.6 million at the end of 2011, the most recent data available, reported spending $322,000 in 2011 on pension educational assistance and $33,000 on a pension reform forum.
The Pew partnership officially began in 2012, but those tax records are not yet available. Mr. Arnold is a former Enron Corp. energy trader who started the Houston hedge fund firm Centaurus Advisors LLC. Mr. and Ms. Arnold supported Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates, Mr. McGee said.