Los Angeles Times Confirms Our Reporting on CalPERS CFO Charles Asubonten’s Resume Misrepresentations; CalPERS Admits to Fabrications and Gets Defensive

The Los Angles Times’ Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter Mike Hiltzik confirmed our reporting on the misrepresentations and discrepancies in the resume of recently-hired CalPERS Chief Financial Officer Charles Asubonten and called on the board to investigate. If you managed to miss the series, you can find the links to them at the end of this post.

But what is particularly surprising about his article, Questions about new CalPERS CFO’s background and experience should be taken seriously by the pension fund, is that the CEO Marcie Frost and Asubonten spoke together to Hilzik on the phone and yet did not deny any of the issues raised in our series (to be clear, talking around a problem does not amount to disproving or denying it). Hiltzik may have covered more points with them than he discussed in his article; I pinged Hiltzik to congratulate him on the piece and he mentioned not being able to cover certain discrepancies due to space constraints.

It is even more surprising that Frost decided to act as her own flack rather than get a professional involved when neither she nor Asubonten have disputed any of the facts presented in our series of articles (and bear in mind, they had more than a week between when I e-mailed the board with a detailed outline of most of the misrepresentations and when I launched the series.

I urge you strongly to read Hiltzik’s article in full, but in case you are time pressed now, here are the high points.

Frost and Asubonten effectively admitted to resume discrepancies. Hiltzik’s story focused on two of Asubonten’s major claims. One was that he was responsible for what he stated was a 70% CAGR increase in the stock price of Palabora Mining Company. Hiltzik confirmed what we had found, that the stock price was in the upper 40s when Asubonten joined versus the 20s that he had put on his resume, and never fell that low the entire time he was there.

Hiltzik also questioned the premise that any mid-level manager could have the impact that Asubonten asserted that he had. He also mapped Palabora’s stock price against the price of copper, showing that the commodity price moves alone largely explained changes in Palabora’s stock price.

The second major claim that Hilzik investigated was one that both Asubonten and later CalPERS made, that he had been the managing director of a private equity firm. Frost in attempting to defend Asubonten admits that our assessment was accurate, that Asubonten was never a private equity professional, as in employed in an asset management firm that was investing money on a discretionary basis. Frost stated that Asubonten’s company was a consulting firm.

As we pointed out more than once, consultants to investors, including very prestigious ones like McKinsey, BCG, and even ones whose business is primarily that of consulting to investors like Houlihan Lokey never call themselves private equity firms. Even worse, Frost said that per Hiltzik, “her understanding” was that Asubonten’s firm was a consulting firm that advised international investors. That strongly suggests that even in the face of the controversy over Asutonten’s truthfulness, Frost has made no effort to make any independent verification of the questionable claims on his resume, and on top of that, is trying to rationalize ones that clearly were misleading. Hiltzik observed that CalPERS’ parroting of Asubonten’s dodgy “private equity firm” claims would probably not pass muster with the SEC if CalPERS were a public company.

Asubonten made a new claim that does not match up against public information. Marcie Frost told JJ Jelinic that Asubonten admitted to a period of unemployment, which we had assumed was after he was terminated from Palabora Mining Company at the end of 2009 through at least the end of 2010, since according to the suit he filed against Palabora in South Africa, he was looking for a job then.

This is what Asubonten told Hiltzik:

He said the employment gap on his resume covered a period in which he was working with a consortium on an ultimately unsuccessful effort to buy the copper mining company.

That does not hold water. As you can see on the resume embedded at the end of the post, at the top of the second page, he depicts himself as having been involved in his private equity activities staring in 2010 to 2012. Asubonten told the Los Angeles Times that that “employment gap” was occupied by working with unsuccessful bidders to buy Palabora.

But Palabora was not put up for sale until early September 2011. Moreover, having participated in mergers and acquisitions at Goldman, later running a mergers and acquisitions business, and subsequently worked regularly with investors, typically on the buy side, it is clear that Palabora’s majority owners Rio Tinto and Anglo American put the company up for auction, which is how companies are sold to get the best price.

Mind you, virtually all divisions of large companies are sold via auction. The only time a seller, particularly a seller that is a public company, might deviate from that practice is if a public sale could damage the value of the asset, if there were some critical senior executives who might bolt in the event of a public sale and would therefore have a major say on who the new company owners would be. or there were competitive considerations. None of these would apply to a relatively small, non-strategic operation like Palabora.

It is similarly inconceivable that Rio Tinto would have been engaged in any serious discussions with potential buyers prior to putting the company up for sale. It’s too well demonstrated that auctions yield the best price for corporate seller to engage in a preliminary time-wasting exercise when a property eventually be sold publicly in a highly structured process. Similarly, any serious buyers would know they’d at best be setting up a public sale if they were to approach a possible seller. Thus, the usual practice among possible purchasers is simply to let a potential seller to be sure to include them in any future buyer solicitation rather than put any energy into putting together an offer.

Having said all of that, it is credible that Asubonten did get himself a consulting assignment with one of the groups that was kicking Palabora’s tires. As a former CFO of the unit, Asubonten could present himself as having inside information about the operation and knowing its cost structure particularly well. But even with established clients (as in they know my price and terms and have accepted my standard agreement), I’ve never had it take less than a week and a half to firm up arrangements on an assignment. So charitably, the earliest Asubonten could have been engaged to work on a purchase of Palabora would have been mid September 2011. That leaves a full 20 1/2 months of unemployment in 2010 and 2011.

Hiltzik dings the board for behaving “childishly” and shirking its duties. From the close of his article:

…the board has shown itself to be one of our less impressive public bodies. Just a year ago, as I reported, the board was bogged down in intramural bickering and attacks on one of its most tough-minded members, J.J. Jelincic.

As recently as last month, this behavior surfaced again, when board President Priya Mathur locked board member Margaret Brown out of CalPERS premises over what appeared to be a minor infraction. Moreover, according to a letter sent to Mathur last Friday by James Moody, an attorney for Brown, and reported by Webber, Mathur or CalPERS staff under her direction have been diverting mail addressed to Brown at CalPERS—and apparently to other board members as well—and in at least some cases not sharing its contents with the addressee….

All this suggests that the CalPERS board members need to be given something serious to work on so they have less time to act childishly. A good place to start would be to inquire just how one of the system’s most important executives was recruited and hired, and whether he’s everything his CEO says he is.

Since as Hilzik points out, neither Marcie Frost nor the board seem inclined to ask the questions they ought to be asking about Asubonten, CalPERS beneficiaries and California taxpayers need to give them a nudge

Here are the members of the Senate Standing Committee on Public Employment and Retirement:

Senator Richard Pan (Chair)

Senator Mike Morrell (Vice Chair)

Senator Connie M. Leyva

Senator John M. W. Moorlach

Senator Anthony J. Portantino

Here are the members of the Assembly’s Public Employees, Retirement, and Social Security Committee:

Freddie Rodriguez (Chair)

Travis Allen (Vice Chair)

Sabrina Cervantes

Ken Cooley

Jim Cooper

Patrick O’Donnell

And here are the contact details for the two elected state officers who also sit on CalPERS’ board:

Mr. John Chiang
California State Treasurer
Post Office Box 942809
Sacramento, CA 94209-0001
john.chiang@treasurer.ca.gov
(916) 653-2995

Ms. Betty Yee
California State Controller
P.O. Box 942850
Sacramento, California 94250-5872
b.t.yee@sco.ca.gov
(916) 445-2636

Naked Capitalism reader have have an impact when snail or e-mailing California state officials on CalPERS matters. I hope you’ll rise to the occasion again.

If any of the legislators above represent your district, I would write them expressing your concerns about governance at CalPERS. Or you could write all the members of both committees and tell them you have friends and family in their districts and plan to call their attention to the festering problems at CalPERS. If you are a CalPERS beneficiary, be sure to mention that.

If CalPERS can’t respond properly to the LA Times saying that its CFO’s resume doesn’t add up, and is not even allowing board members to get its own mail (link to our post yesterday), how can it possibly be up to the challenge of handling its underfunding crisis? Tell them the board governance is so clearly inadequate that they need to create an inspector general for CalPERS to provide badly-needed supervision. Copy Yee and Chiang, who as statewide officials are also sensitive to constitutent letters.

Thanks so much for your interest and efforts!

_____

Executive Summary: New CalPERS CFO Charles Asubonten’s Misrepresentations and Discrepancies in His Resume and Form 700

Misrepresentations and Inconsistencies in CalPERS CFO Charles Asubonten’s Resume

CalPERS CFO Charles Asubonten’s Form 700 Violation and His Unduly Mysterious Private Equity Firm

Why Charles Asubonten Is Not Qualified to Be Chief Financial Officer and What His Hiring Says About CalPERS

Asubonten resume
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27 comments

  1. ewmayer

    Great ongoing work exposing the culture of corruption at CalPERS, Yves, and nice to know there are still a few investigative journalists like Hiltzik out there worthy of the appellation.

    Keep hammering them – from what’s been exposed so far it’s clear that nothing shy of a throw-the-bums-out radical housecleaning, coupled with a new regime of truly independent oversight with teeth, will suffice. Hopefully the few board members like J.J. Jelincic and Margaret Brown who have conscientiously tried to their jobs will end up vindicated and perhaps even rewarded by being asked to play key roles in the eventual “New CalPERS”.

    Reply
  2. The Rev Kev

    Looks like full congratulations go to Naked Capitalism for an outstanding piece of research in revealing blatant improprieties in CalPERS’s recruitment. Would have been nice for that Los Angeles Times article to give even more credit to Yves’s articles but the article indicates that the author himself has been following developments with CalPERS for at least a year. I still call it a win on NC’s part.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Thanks for the vote of confidence, but Hiltzik was in fact very generous with credit and links to NC. By contrast, I had an argument with a Reuters reporter who absolutely refused to credit Hubert Horan or NC for a quote she had lifted from one of our posts. The ‘tude was astonishing.

      Reply
  3. PlutoniumKun

    Congratulations to Yves, I think this must be the first sign that the dam is starting to break. It will soon be impossible for the rest of the business and economics media to ignore this.

    Reply
  4. allan

    A great score for Yves, although I too wish that Hiltzik had made it even clearer
    how much he was relying on her work.

    Hopefully now that this has graduated from “some blog” to LAT, it will be much harder for CalPERS to blow off.

    Reply
  5. Anon

    Is there a “not” missing in this sentence?

    “the CEO Marcie Frost and Asubonten spoke together to Hilzik on the phone and yet did deny any of the issues raised in our series”

    Should it be “did NOT deny”?

    (Sorry if I’m wrong!)

    Reply
  6. flora

    The ‘inspector general for CalPERS’ idea is a good one. CalPERS apparently could use either outside oversight or a good housecleaning.

    Board President Priya Mathur has already been rebuked once according to Hilzik and yet persists in bad behavior.

    From Hilzik’s article:
    A CalPERS staff member informed Brown that “Priya reviews all correspondence addressed to board members and directs how to proceed.” (Mathur, by the way, was stripped of her board posts for a time in 2014 over her violations of state political ethics laws.)

    Thanks for your continued reporting on CalPERS.

    Reply
    1. Chauncey Gardiner

      Agree. Based on what we are seeing, this situation also calls for an outside independent financial and operations audit, with a related focus on internal controls.

      Reply
  7. RUKidding

    Thanks Yves for a job well done! Very grateful for the investigative work you do. Heading downundah so no chance to write letters this time. I’ll give your regards to the Lucky Country.

    Reply
  8. Amit Chokshi

    Wow amazing work. I have followed this site for over 10 years, had Yves speak to a CFA society in Connecticut many years ago, and read econned . Amazing how the quality of work and analysis has remained at such a high level for so long. Could NC ever become a tv channel similar to Jimmy Dore or Young Turks or partner with them or leverage their platform? Seems like an even greate audience would benefit from this beyond the website.

    Reply
    1. none

      Could NC ever become a tv channel similar to Jimmy Dore or Young Turks or partner with them or leverage their platform?

      Noooo!!! Video has much lower info density than this blog. And also, Dore and Cenk are annoying as hell.

      Reply
  9. Jeff

    As a headhunter, I see a surprising number of candidates, umm, stretch the truth, on their resumes or claims of experience.

    In this case, I’m left wondering about a number of things :

    – Who checked references for Asubonten and why didn’t resume inaccuracies become known then?
    – Did no one ask Asubonten to walk through his experience with dates to check resume accuracy? This is done early in the recruitment process to understand job change history to gain insight.
    – Who conducted the background check? Was resume accuracy not included in this step?
    – Who interviewed Asubonten? How many interviews did he go through? Who made the final decision to hire him, and did that person hear either concerns or dissension regarding hiring Asubonten?
    – Lastly, it’s standard practice to terminate an employee if it’s discovered they lied on their resume or misrepresented themselves or their experience.

    Your move, CALPERS.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I don’t have answers to many of these and am unlikely to be able to get them since personnel matters are exempt from the Public Records Act. However, I cannot imagine that CalPERS did a proper check of Asbonten’s history since of the three people who were involved in supervising him at Palabora, all would have known of his firing. Thus CalPERS cannot have spoken to any of them. Similarly, per Marcie Frost’s comments regarding her understanding of what Asubonten did when he was self employed and involved in private equity, it appears there was no serious effort to verify that either.

      My understanding it the only background check they did was a credit check and a criminal background check. I would have to think they verified his educational credientials and his CPA and CFA. I believe they called some references, but as we both know, pretty much anyone can get 3 people to say they are competent. With a sketchy resume like his, I don’t see how that could be adequate.

      If you could tell us what a background check should have looked like in a situation like his, that would be extremely helpful.

      Regarding who interviewed him, some members of the board did.

      Re firing him, per the interview, it appears CalPERS has no intention of firing him. It appears to have made no investigation of the findings in my or Hiltzik’s articles. Frost appears to have only spoken to Asubonten and to be taking his claims at fact value (I infer that from a second conversation that Frost had with JJ where she appeared to be both fishing for information and sending a message). Asubonten is still an employee in good standing, where my impression is most organizations would suspend someone with allegations like this in play while they conducted an investigation.

      Reply
  10. Craig H.

    Queried by Webber, Asubonten dismissed her questions as “character assassination,” an assertion later repeated to me by a CalPERS spokesman.

    Hah Hah Go Get ‘Em!

    Reply
  11. none

    Moreover, according to a letter sent to Mathur last Friday by James Moody, an attorney for Brown,

    I keep reading that as “according to … James ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody, an attorney for Brown”

    Bwahahaha ;)

    Reply
  12. griffen

    Keep up the great research and reporting. Having switched positions several times since 2009, and at least two were involuntary, I will be fairly upfront with any potential employer.

    Financial crisis, stuff happened and in one case ended very poorly.

    Again, kudos to the NC team !

    Reply
  13. EoH

    [B]e given something serious to work on so they have less time to act childishly.

    Would you like whisky or vodka to go with that weak tea?

    The CalPERS board, CEO, and General Counsel already have serious things to work on. They appear to be acting on them intentionally and willfully, not childishly. They do not seem to include competently running CalPERS.

    The series of issues NC has covered suggests that CalPERS’s problems are serious and systemic. They imply priorities other than meeting fiduciary obligations, which should worry state government, taxpayers and pension beneficiaries. CalPERS is an institution ripe for full-scale audit, disclosure and change at the top.

    Reply

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