WASHINGTON - Martin Slate, executive director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. and the driving force behind far-reaching pension law changes, died Feb. 23 of a heart attack at his home. He was 51.
John Seal, deputy executive director and chief operating officer at the PBGC, has been named acting executive director.
A career civil servant, Mr. Slate was known not only for his brilliance in highly technical tax-related issues, but also for his management skills.
When he took charge in March 1993, the PBGC had a $2.9 billion shortfall. When he died, the agency had reported its first surplus in many years. Many of his efforts to fix the shortfall were more proactive than reactive.
Mr. Slate was steadfast in his intentions to protect not only the integrity of the agency's program, but inevitably the benefits of 42 million workers and retirees. One of his earliest initiatives was to beef up an early warning program, initiated under James B. Lockhart's watch in 1991. The program, which has been critical in helping the PBGC catch problems before they blister, has negotiated $14.5 billion in cash and security for more than 1 million workers and retirees. Included in this tally is the unprecedented agreement with General Motors Corp., which in 1995 contributed $10 billion in cash and stock to its severely underfunded pension plan.
At the same time, he led the battle for legislative changes that forced certain employers with underfunded plans to comply with higher contribution rates and pay higher premium fees. The resulting law, the Retirement Protection Act of 1994, was Mr. Slate's biggest accomplishment at the PBGC.
Mr. Slate's plan to streamline and improve the agency did not go without criticism. Last year, several experts were concerned that the agency delved too much into corporate transactions. The PBGC started using the reportable events provision in the Retirement Protection Act to make sure companies with well funded and underfunded plans were satisfying a tax code provision that required benefits to be the same or better after a spinoff. While some felt the agency went too far in using the Internal Revenue Code for this purpose, Mr. Slate stood firmly behind the policy. "It's crucial at a time of invigorated corporate activity, and through the program we work with corporations and structure protections for pensions when transactions are occurring," he said at the time.
Mr. Slate also was instrumental in getting the White House's attention to pension issues last year and securing the inclusion of pension simplification in the Small Business Job Protection Act.
"One of Marty's greatest strengths was to get things done," said Carol Connor Flowe, former PBGC general counsel and now a partner in the Washington law firm of Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn.
Mr. Slate also instituted a series of reforms to locate retired workers who have not collected their benefits and ensuring that companies pay their fair share of PBGC premiums.
Under Mr. Slate, the agency - which collects $1 billion in insurance premiums annually and pays pensions to approximately 400,000 people each year - also improved its customer service.
"In most of my career, I've had several dealings with the agency (prior to going the PBGC) and I would not hesitate to say he was the best executive director," said Ellen Hennessy, now PBGC deputy executive director.
Ms. Hennessy had known Mr. Slate since she taught him at Georgetown University, where he received a master's of law in taxation from Georgetown University Law Center, graduating in 1988 at the top of the class of 208.
Ms. Hennessy said the programs initiated by Mr. Slate will continue. "That will be Marty's legacy," she said.
Before joining the PBGC, Mr. Slate worked at the Internal Revenue Service, where he oversaw all aspects of tax regulation that affected 1 million pension plans with $2.5 trillion in assets. At the IRS, he also initiated the voluntary compliance resolution program, now well established, in an effort to ensure sponsors comply with tax laws.
President Clinton called Mr. Slate the "quintessential public servant." "Marty spent his entire life working to make sure our laws were fair and applied justly," he added.
Mr. Slate was a longtime friend of Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he met while he was a student at Harvard University and she was at nearby Wellesley College. The two worked on political campaigns at Harvard and later as classmates at Yale University Law School.
Mr. Slate, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard in 1967, graduated from Yale three years later.
Mr. Slate is survived by his wife, Dr. Caroline Poplin.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. March 6 at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Constitution Avenue between 12th and 14th streets, Washington. Photo identification will be required. Contributions may be made in his memory to Thomson School Fund, Strong John Thomson Elementary School, 1200 L St. N.W., Washington, D.C., 20005, or the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, 6101 Montrose Road, Suite 200, Rockville, Md., 20852.