Over a series of posts, we will discuss what we believe is a serious governance lapse at CalPERS, which is the hiring of Charles Asubonten, who joined as its Chief Financial Officer on October 2, 2017. As we will show, even if Asubonten lived up to the description on his resume, he is not qualified for the job, as can be easily seen by comparing his resume with CalPERS’ job specs. The first required qualification is at least 10 years of experience in a large pension fund or financial institution. Asubonten has none.
But more troubling is that comparing the resume to authoritative public domain evidence showed Asubonten has made multiple misrepresentations. Interviews with former executives who reviewed his performance, and other sources of information, confirmed our interpretation of those documents and exposed more discrepancies.
Asubonten also has meaningful inconsistencies in the presentation of his professional history over time prior to applying for his position at CalPERS. It also appears that Asubonten made a material misrepresentation on a financial conflicts of interest filing by California government officials, the Form 700.
These allegations are serious. We will therefore provide the documentation supporting our findings over a series of posts.
We will begin today with an overview of the misrepresentations and discrepancies. In a second post today, we will focus on the disparities between what Asubonten’s resume says about his purportedly most significant executive position, that of serving as CFO for a South African mining company, compared to evidence from public records and former executives.
Tomorrow, we will turn to his more recent “man of many names” history in private equity and his related Form 700 issue, and will discuss how even taking Asubonten’s claims at face value, he is not qualified for the CFO role.
Someone close to CalPERS called my attention to Asubonten’s hiring and the fact that his CFO experience was limited. His LinkedIn page said for the last few years that he’d been a private equity executive, yet neither his profile nor CalPERS’ press release named his firm, which seemed peculiar. Anyone who has ever worked in private equity understands the importance of the pedigree of their firm and would actively promote the firm they were working for.
It was in fact difficult to find out anything out about Asubonten’s private equity activities. As one 30-year industry veteran pointed out, “If the firm did a deal it should have shown up someplace.” Further digging turned up more troubling discrepancies. I obtained his resume, which is embedded at the end of this post, from CalPERS via a Public Records Act request.
Asubonten graduated magna cum laude from North Carolina Central University and obtained an MBA degree from what is now called the Ross School at the University of Michigan. He worked between college and business school at KPMG and Dow Chemical. He then advanced in finance positions at Ford Motor and DTE Energy. He next went to Rio Tinto, where he was posted to Palabora Mining Company in South Africa, in which Rio Tinto held a majority stake, as its Chief Financial Officer. He left Palabora after three and a half years, then spent two and a half years in private equity. In mid 2012 he went to another mining company, Mopani Copper Mines in Zambia, where he was the Chief Financial Officer for thirteen months. In 2013, he returned to the US to work for a private equity firm. He has a CPA, a CFA, and holds a diploma from a two-day Financial Times governance course.
Asubonten has made numerous misrepresentations on his resume. These are so prevalent and the degree of inaccuracy is so marked that they cannot be viewed as normal puffery. As McKinsey’s former co-head of its organization practice put it, “This goes beyond sloppy. It’s in an entirely different class.”
Specifically, Asubonten considerably exaggerated his job scope at Palabora, claiming that he had authority and positions that are contradicted by public records and reports from former Palabora executives. His claims of significant achievements are also at odds with a court ruling in a suit Asubonten lodged over his bonus and his flights back to the US. The decision described Asubonten’s poor performance ratings for the last 2 years of this three and one half year tenure and his termination. The judge did not find in favor Asubonten’s claims that he deserved a better personal performance score and noted that Asubonten provided only “the most sketchy evidence”.
As we indicated earlier, not only has it been well nigh impossible to find any evidence of private equity activity associated with Asubonten, he has generally not used a business name and when he has, he does not appear to have exposed any name publicly more than once. One of the few place where his name is listed with advisory board assignments, in Ghana, his name is spelled differently: Asubonteng, as opposed to Asubonten.
Finally, Asubonten provided an address for his business on his Form 700, the disclosure of financial interests filing required of all California officials, where there was not only no office in his business name at that location, but even mail sent to that address would not have been delivered. A informal reading from the Fair Political Practices Commission is that this address is non-complaint with the requirements of Form 700. The form has strong language about the seriousness of the responses, such as “I have used all reasonable diligence…”. The form is filed under penalty of perjury.
We sent the e-mail below to Asubonten last week. We sent it separately to the CalPERS board and its Chief Executive Officer, Marcie Frost, letting them know we had sent it to Asubonten and providing an example of some of the additional information that we had.
Dear Mr. Asubonten,
I publish the website Naked Capitalism, which provides independent news coverage of key CalPERS developments.
Recently, it came to my attention that the resume and the Form 700 you provided to CalPERS contain material misrepresentations and substantial discrepancies vis-à-vis public records and sources that have first-hand knowledge of your history and activities.
I will shortly be publishing a comprehensive review of my findings. In the meantime, I wish to give you the opportunity to comment.
This summary is only a partial review, focusing on major issues:
1. Mr. Asubonten was the CFO of Palabora Mining Company from July 2006 to December 31, 2009 when his employment was terminated. For the last 2 years of his 3 1/2 year tenure, he received poor performance ratings. After he left Palabora, he attempted to dispute the performance ratings. Mr. Asubonten claimed only three accomplishments. All were rejected due lack of support (“the most sketchy evidence”) despite the bar being relatively low by virtue of Rio Tinto/PMC’s inability to provide anything other than verbal backup for its personal performance grades for Mr. Asubonten (55 out of a possible 150 in 2009, and “not much better” in 2008).
2. Mr. Asubonten did not play the lead in developing strategy, was not “co-responsible for day to day operations” with the MD, nor did he lead a turnaround. The turnaround started in 2005 and was due to a change in the mining operations from open pit to underground mining, which required considerable investment and was initiated at and approved by Rio Tinto. Former executives say Mr. Asubonten “had nothing to do with it.”
The turnaround was already underway before Mr. Asubonten arrived as the underground mining operations were coming on line and copper prices surged. Palabora went from an operating loss in 2004 to an operating profit in 2005, and even more important, cash flow rose sharply in 2005. Increases in commodity prices and higher production levels in 2006 and 2007 led to further improvements in profits.
3. Mr. Asubtonen claims he was responsible for investor relations and boosting the stock price “from the 20s to over 100 rand in three years”.
Mr. Asubonten was not responsible for investor relations. This was a team effort, with the involvement of Rio Tinto and the Palabora Mining Company Managing Director having the lead responsibility. And even of the local team, former executives say that Mr. Asubonten’s role was less important than that of a South African employee who had the day-to-day financial media/investor contact role. They depict Mr. Asubonten’s involvement as minor.
The stock price closed at 47.50 rand on his first day at Palabora and never closed below 34.50 rand his entire time there.
The stock price trading range in 2007, too early by Mr. Asubonten’s own claims for him to have had any impact, was virtually identical to that of 2009, which was the end of the three years for which he attempted to take credit (July 2006 to July 2009). And as is implied above, it strains credulity that Mr. Asubonten could have had any net positive impact on the company in the last half of this three-year time frame, given that his personal performance ratings were markedly lower than that of the business unit (Palabora).
4. Mr. Asubonten did not supervise or have responsibility for the corporate secretary. That was an independent role and it did not report to Mr. Asubonten.
5. Mr. Asubonten did not run the hedge book. It was managed by Rio Tinto.
6. Mr. Asubonten was never the chairman of the Palabora Foundation. Moreover, his performance as a member of that team was depicted as poor: “He did not do a good job. If I were him, I would not be proud of that.”
CalPERS has described Mr. Asubonten as a “managing director in a private equity firm,” apparently reflecting how he presented his background to CalPERS:
1. As Mr. Ausbonten and CalPERS surely know, a “private equity executive” is someone in a senior level of a firm that has discretionary investment authority over other peoples’ money and is overseeing the process of buying and selling controlling interests in companies. While it is possible for an individual even with very little money to act as a private equity investor by, say, taking a stake in a shoe repair store, that is completely different than being a “private equity executive” or “managing director” in a “private equity firm” which implies that the firm’s principals support their overheads and compensation from recurring fees and profit participation from committed third-party capital. Mere self-assignment of a role, or the use of a self-assigned title on a business card or LinkedIn profile, is not proof of career accomplishments.
In addition, Mr. Asubonten’s description of his activities at “Transmax-Maximum Transformation” is inconsistent with his description of himself as a “private equity executive.“ It is consistent with being a consultant to individuals and companies making investments. McKinsey, KKR’s Capstone unit, Houlihan Lokey, and many other individual and small firm consultants play that role. They are service providers and do not hold themselves out as being in the private equity business, any more than other service providers, such as lawyers or accountants, would.
Mr. Asubonten may have received stakes in investee companies as part of his consideration for providing services. That would not make him a private equity executive or principal. Employees of KKR Capstone participate in KKR’s carry pool, and some law firms and independent consultants to private equity firms receive small equity participations.
2. Due to the long time frame of private equity investing, as again a private equity professional would understand, a critically important criterion in evaluating a firm is the cohesiveness of its management team and the stability of its operations. Mr. Asubonten’s history from 2010-2012 and then from 2013 to present is inconsistent with such cohesiveness and stability because:
Generally, there is no identification of a firm whatsoever, and when used, they are inconsistent and dissimilar (including e.g., “Private Equity Inc.” and “Global Finance” and “Charles Asubonten & Associates”) to such a degree that he does not appear to have used a specific firm name more than once, including on documents. Particularly troublingly, Mr. Asubonten has done business in Ghana under a different name (Asubonteng as opposed to Asubonten). While this could conceivably be a mere mistake, the fact that it has occurred more than once in settings where Mr. Asubonten almost certainly could have had the misspelling corrected but did not do so is troubling.
Financial institutions experts point out that the use of a mild variation in spelling leads to “no realistic possibility of detection” that the variant spelling name is connected with another person.
Note that Ghana is on the GFSC Sensitive Sources Notice where financial institutions are required to engage in enhanced due diligence measures and give special attention to “all existing and new business relationships and transactions connected with such countries or territories.”
3. Mr. Asubonten’s use of different company names or DBAs makes it difficult to find where those claimed businesses exist. There are no Transmax corporate entities registered in Delaware, Maryland, or Michigan. The apparent absence of any registered corporation is significant because private equity firms use them as part of their legal structures to limit liability; it is unheard of to do otherwise.
I have contacted all RSA Capitals, included in the variant of Mr. Asubonten’s business name on his Form 700, that are in the private equity business to ascertain if any might have a relationship with Mr. Asubonten or a “Transmax”. All either stated they had never heard of him or did not reply, when you would expect them to if they had worked together.
The only listings of Mr. Asubonten’s name in connection with specific companies (aside from previous employers or educational/accreditation institutions) is one of a business in which he may have invested (Tragik Koncepts & Design, a tiny computer repair store in Ontario that has closed) and two later ones where Mr. Asubonten is only on the advisory board. Private equity investors do not act as advisors to non-investee companies save perhaps as a charitable activity or because the position is influential (being on the board of one of the Federal Reserve Banks; those boards are advisory boards). An investor would have board seats. However, consultants and other business advisors to private equity firms often do serve on advisory boards.
4. Absence of a website and an office:
Mr. Asubonten has in the past registered two internet domain names: transmax.biz and totusfinancial.com. Both websites are not active and appear to never have been built.
Mr. Asubonten pointedly avoided providing a location for his “Transmax-Maximum Transformation” entry by placing “Maximum Transformation” in the position used for all of this other resume entries to show job location.
The only physical address provided by Mr. Asubonten is on his Form 700: Transmax/RSA Capital, 8480 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, Maryland. After extensive inquiry, the only connection identified between that address and Mr. Asubonten or the business name listed is a letterbox in Mr. Asubonten’s name (as opposed to a business name) at a UPS Store located in a strip mall at 8480 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, Maryland, whose lease expired on October 1, 2017.
The UPS Store confirms that mail sent to the address listed on the Form 700 would have been rejected even if it had a UPS mailbox number. UPS requires that mail must show both the letterbox lessee name and the letterbox number. Furthermore, the Fair Political Practices Commission help line has confirmed that a business address that is not valid for mail delivery is not complaint with the requirements of Form 700.
5. While Mr. Asubonten may have had an inheritance or other personal funds he invested, this would fall short of being considered a “private equity firm” in which Mr. Asubonten could hold himself out as an executive unless his personal/family monies were of such a scale that he hired full-time employees. But even then, as again both Mr. Asubonten and CalPERS staff surely must know, that type of investment operation is called a “family office.”
I look forward to your response addressing these matters. Thank you.
Mr Asubonten replied early in the day Sacramento time:
Thanks for reaching out to me. Your report is nothing short of character assassination. I have been utilizing my skills at CalPERS to ensure that we deliver on our sacred mission of delivering retirement benefits and healthcare to those who serve California!
I would like to know what your purpose or objective is so that I can point you to the appropriate sources.
If you find capitalism naked, let me assure you that I have been doing my bit to clothe it; to wit, find an article I wrote years ago.
Let me end by quoting Edmund Burke:
“When bad men (or women) combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
We replied to Asubonten, stating that we were asking him to correct errors in what we had sent him, with any supporting evidence. We have not received a response.
We’ve embedded his attachments at the end of this post. As lawyers like to say, res ipsa loquitur. Asubonten did not address any of the information presented, and instead made a personal attack and also attempted to make an emotional appeal. He also seemed not to recognize that calling a letter to the editor an article was not helpful to his case.
We e-mailed back, telling him that we had contacted him to assure the accuracy of our reporting and asked for him to correct errors and provide any supporting material.
We have not received a reply.Asubonten resume
Asubonten Letter to Editor combinepdf
In any normal large financial services undertaking or Fortune 500 business, padding your resume is a fireable offence e.g. http://money.cnn.com/2012/05/13/technology/yahoo-ceo-out/index.htm
But this is CalPERS we’re talking about here so you almost expect this to be seen as a plus point.
That said, anyone holding any sort of office where control of large sums of money are involved should be subject to a defined and — if it is a public body especially — published set of Fitness and Propriety Assessment Principles. One thing which slaps you in the face from CalPERS reporting statements is their getting seriously smitten with the trend to lightweight oversight, fast decision making and leaner operations. It’s all they waffle on about in their newly announced 2017 strategy.
The price you (the “you” of course being CalPERS scheme beneficiaries) pay for slipshod governance is that you’re an easy target for being hoodwinked.
There’s padding your CV and padding your CV.
Some padding is unfortunately more or less expected and discounted (which means that everyone has to padd to a certain extent). But the padding usually means presenting truth selectively – albeit possibly in misleading ways. Like ‘C++ experience’ may mean ‘I re-wrote the HelloWorld example from Kernighan&Ritchie C++ book, which I then found too hard going’.
Telling outright lies is fireable offence though. If CalPers was a UK entity, I assume it would be FCA regulated and on something like this our dear Mr. CFO would be out (gardening) before the lunch on the day this was sent to FCA (Senior Manager regime, failing requirements for “integrity and honesty” + “competence”).
On top of that, he has misrepresentaions that aren’t even helpful to his case. For instance, he calls Palabora the only copper mine in South Africa. Lambert sent this along:
Oh yes. The regulator would have him out on his ear just for that alone. And you’re subject to more checking in applying to be a school governor than CalPERS seemed to have done here. The hiring institution is culpable too because when you have positions of this seniority, you cannot just say isn’t it terrible, people shouldn’t mislead in describing their career history and experience, we’re shocked just shocked — you have to show you were proactive in verification of any claims being made. At the very least you’d want to get references from all the past employers or places he was associated with.
Did CalPERS do that? If so, all they have to do is make a statement saying that they did exactly this, unequivocally, and that everything checked out with no red flags.
(cue tumbleweed blowing across CalPERS well kept Head Office front lawn)
Assumes one is “being hoodwinked” rather than getting the personality one most desires. Had CalPERS board and CEO hired, say, Susan Webber as CFO, how long would her standards, priorities and work ethic have remained a good fit? About a New York minute.
Separately, how hard is it today to vet a cv? Digital search software filters out most cvs before human review when oddities appear. A thorough digital search of short-listed candidates can be had for a few hundred dollars. Even after hiring, HR staffs commonly conduct digital searches of targeted and randomly chosen staff. Teachers lose jobs, for example, because someone found embarrassing pictures of them from a spring break party ten years earlier.
CalPERS board and CEO could have had the assistance of the most highly regarded members of the executive search industry when hiring a top, highly-compensated executive. The least amount of due diligence would have produced serious questions. They chose Asubonten.
An extremely pertinent point — recruitment at this level isn’t down to some HR nobody trawling through LinkedIn (or shouldn’t be). You’d get the services of the whitest of white shoe executive recruitment agencies to draw up the long listing. The board should then have been all over the shortlisting and then the interviews (or should’ve been). An area sales manger for a specialised lending division of my TBTF was being recruited. There were hundreds of applications, a day long assessment for the 7 or 8 serious contenders, psychological profiling, 1-on-1 interviews and more besides. The aim was to weed out the blaggers and shysters.
If CalPERS did all this and, yet, as you say, they chose Asubonten ?
Exactly, The rigor you describe for an area sales manager’s job would normally be less than that required when searching for anyone’s CFO, The vetting process is also usually more personal. Boards and CEOs want to know off-the-record from their peers that their top pick is OK. But they would have relied on a top outside search firm to vet the cvs: it’s good practice, it’s what they’re paid for, it’s insurance against a screw-up.
Even if the job is offered to a first-time CFO, she would normally have done well as a treasurer or large organization’s head of finance, or in some other senior position requiring technical and managerial skills and certifications. Skill in networking in and outside the company would be important.
The three people with the most board contact are normally the CEO, CFO and GC. In addition, the CFO is the go to person for the financial press and the financial industry as a whole. Her most important job – other than as a prime role model for all managers – is to ensure that she has in place sound investing, accounting and internal and external reporting processes.
Any ensign can drive the boat. The captain has to know what resources she needs for which mission and sea conditions, and ensure that every other person, process and piece of equipment performs as required. Regardless of who or what goes right or wrong, the buck stops with her.
As for dealing with the press, Mr. Asubonten has already failed the test.
Ahh CalPERS – the organization that never fails to disappoint. Going by the reply to Yves’s letter, someone was getting very snippy here. Accusing her of character assassination? My momma use to say never throw matches at people when you are covered in gasoline.
And if he is going to go for quotes, how about one by Albert Einstein-
“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters”
OK. I have looked over his resume and, though being of a non-corporate background, I can see that he was going well until he went to Africa when his career went sideways and never really recovered. After that is another story. Going by my obsession with context, I have to ask – who is it that decided that he would be great fit for CalPERS? And for what purpose? What happened to due diligence in checking out his resume? That is the question.
A little story. Once in the State where I live decades ago a Premier was elected – sort of like a Governor. He knew what sort of State that he wanted to run – one using lots of anonymous, brown paper bags – so he set about it. He sacked the Police Commissioner because he was an honest straight shooter and went for a replacement. He found him in a police officer that was busted for corruption and was sent to a town back of beyond. It was this man that was selected even though he was number forty-three down the list of police officers. But the thing was that this was the man that the Premier chose because his track record proved that he was the sort of person that would be useful. Both the SOBs even got themselves a knighthood in the end – until they were busted.
Of course that story has nothing to do with the CalPERS story and you can’t prove it!
“The Hillbilly Dictator” and his Knighted Flexian maybe.
You said it. I didn’t!
Mr Asubonten’s reply to your list of particulars has the distinct feel (to me) of one of those scam Bank-of-Nigeria emails. It’s the language he uses.
“reaching out”, “ensure that we deliver on our sacred mission of delivering retirement benefits ” (Sacred Mission!) “doing my bit”
“unpitied sacrifice” “contemptible struggle”
So many emotional buzz words and phrases, so much pathos, so much implied promise, and so little substance. Yep, Bank-of-Nigeria-scam writing style. (This is not a snark, or not fully a snark.) And all without answering a single point you raise.
Delivering earned benefits is not a “sacred mission”. It is a legal and financial obligation.
Does CalPERS do any due diligence or just hire whoever has the best storyline/sales pitch?
Sacred mission! In line with Blankfein’s god’s job.
Enough is enough!
Cal Pers found the perfect fit for the job!
Staff should be congratulated.
Is there any back story on the hiring process for this position? How did he even get in the running…..?
There’s only one question on the application to be CalPERS CFO: “How good are you at lying with straight face?” Asubonteng did really, really well.
The flippant response is a derisive, defensive way to buy time. It suggests that Mr. Asubonten does not take your questions seriously and feels he can safely ignore them. It demonstrates his ignorance of this site’s superb network, generally, and its investigative journalism regarding CalPERS, in particular. An executive competent to be CalPERS’s CFO would have done his homework, been aware of both and responded with more candor and more information.
It would appear that Mr. Asubonten has decided to double down on his apparent petty deceit. If so, it is likely to lead to greater levels of deceit, behavior that should disqualify someone from being responsible for investing billions on behalf of California taxpayers. His hiring and the fervor with which CalPERS is likely to defend him are sadly typical of CalPERS current management.
Well, a truly competent CFO would not have been asked the question.
A smarter CFO would either keep quiet (no response at all), or let the legal respond. This response is dumb IMO.
Dumb and compliant enough to be hired by CalPERS peculiar management. Too thankful to rock the board and CEO’s flat-bottomed boat. Even after more than six months, not confident or networked enough to tell his PR or admin head or GC to docket the inquiry and to respond for him. Peter, meet Principle.
Asubonten’s predictable attempt to paint himself as a victim is unlikely to survive a few press cycles. Who will be doing the leg work to defend him? It’s usually the CEO or the board committee that recommended him. Given that their judgment is being questioned, it’s likely to be a faceless PR flack.
Working at the mine in South Africa is not a job where major decisions are made.
Decisions are made in Johannesburg, at HQ, and executed at the mine.
I find patterns of behavior to be revealing. In his response to the Sacramento Bee (in his very first two sentences, no less) he reveals sociopathic behavior by first thanking the recipient and then berating her.
And then there’s his closing quote, which not only reveals a condescending and patronizing contempt for legitimacy, but a hypocrisy of virtue.
You don’t have to be a rocket-scientist to read between the lines and know that this is just another con-man in a long line of con-men and con-women enriching themselves at the expense of others and leaving a trail of destruction behind them in the process.
It is really disheartening to see this man was given any position at Cal Pers. First, it proves that they are either incompetent in performing the most basic employment background check for a very senior position or they knew he was a fraud and did not care. Second, that the minimum 10 year requirement was utterly disregarded displays, once again, Cal Pers leader’s utter contempt for any checks on doing whatever it is they want to do and is further evidence that there exists no internal constraints on their actions. (Apparently, they could hire a ham sandwich for the position and declare it qualified). Third, and lastly, it is but more evidence that the public trust which is embedded with Cal Pers is today continuously violated by a corrupt and unaccountable body.
California seems to attract all kinds of troubles. Too bad the average citizen isn’t being informed about the unfunded liabilities in a way that reaches more people more often.
If you’d like to zero in on a particular city’s troubles, check out the link from pensiontracker.org.
They are Ravens: That is A Conspiracy of Ravens.
The CIA are Crows: A Murder of Crows
I have watched with wonder as time and again egregious, sometimes seemingly criminal, behaviors on the part of Calpers board members have been exposed here on NC and I am truly dumbfounded as to how this continues. Is there no governance, no over site for this group in Sacramento, or is that where the ultimate responsibility resides. The profits must be huge and huge monies can purchase much..
Now wait just a second. A gigantically successful 1970’s publication had as it’s byline, (Mad Magazine), “What! Me Worry? Shoot, us taxpayers have been able to take a joke so far.
I think the most remarkable part, of the many remarkable parts, is Asubonten’s attachment.
A letter to the editor. Presumably, he just took his best shot to close this out quickly. A letter. Really?
I mean, I’ve had plenty of letters to the editor published, but it wouldn’t occur to me to defend problems in my resume with them. Very odd.
Sorry, a bit off-topic here but was quite surprised to see this – https://mps2018.es/#speakers-bios . Eric Beinhocker, executive director of INET at Oxford is speaking at Mont Pelerin Society 2018 at Gran Canaria Spain! Considering the kind of anti-establishment posts coming out of INET and being posted here, what the hell is such a high member of INET doing at MPS?! Can someone provide their more informed opinion here please?