Nearly half the leadership staff at Chicago Teachers' Pension Fund alleges discrimination and other ill-treatment by a few of the fund's board trustees, according to a lawyer representing them.
"It's been a racially hostile environment for some time, sort of conjoined with intimidation, bullying and harassment," said Michael Leonard, a Chicago attorney hired by four of the $11 billion pension fund's leadership staff and a former top staffer who recently exited. All requested, through Mr. Leonard, that their names not be used.
As for Mr. Leonard's clients potentially pursuing a lawsuit, "that's under discussion," he said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot last month told the editorial board of Crain's Chicago Business that conditions at CTPF were "very troubling" and in need of outside investigation.
Tension between staff and trustees could affect the operation of a fund.
"It's impossible to run a pension without real collaboration and cooperation between the staff and the board," says Marc Levine, a former financial executive who previously served as a trustee on the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System and the Illinois State Board of Investment. "If you have infighting, everything becomes dysfunctional, and everything becomes 'gotcha,'" Mr. Levine said.
Problems at the pension fund surfaced in August when the president of the fund's board, Jeffery Blackwell, went public with a host of criticisms directed at the board's trustees. "For the last year and a half I have been witness to some of the most abhorrent, disturbing and despicable actions by former and current trustees on this board," Mr. Blackwell said in a statement at the beginning of the Aug. 20 trustee board meeting, citing "a culture of intimidation, intentional misinformation, discrimination, slander, misogyny, fear-mongering, blatant racism, sexism and retaliatory actions from trustees towards staff and vendors."
The fund's chief legal officer, Daniel Hurtado, declined to comment. "Fund employees have not notified us that they are considering any legal action," fund spokeswoman Michelle Holleman said in an email. The pension fund has 122 employees and covers about 68,000 current and future Chicago teacher beneficiaries, according to Ms. Holleman.
Mr. Blackwell didn't name names in his August statement, but he called on then-executive director Charles Burbridge to compile "grievances, complaints, harassment claims and audio clips of verbal abuse" and consequences previously recommended by outside attorneys for submission to the Illinois Attorney General's Office, City Hall and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, among other local and federal agencies.
Since then Mr. Burbridge has left his position and Mary Cavallaro, who had been deputy executive director, was appointed as an interim executive director.
In a statement late last month, Ms. Cavallaro said: "We want to assure our members that CTPF business continues uninterrupted. The fund is committed to ensuring financial stability, operational efficiencies, and seamless service to members. CTPF is a diverse organization that takes great pride in providing, protecting, and enhancing the present and future economic wellbeing of our members."