Late last Friday, we noticed that the page for Chief Financial Officer Charles Asubonten was not up on the CalPERS website. It turns out Asubonten is indeed gone from CalPERS, but that may not mean he is done with CalPERS.
Recall that following our extensive documentation of discrepancies on his resume and financial conflicts of interest filing (Form 700), Los Angeles Times reporter Mike Hiltzik confirmed our reporting and voiced his own concerns. A few days after Hiltzik’s story ran, Adam Ashton of the Sacramento Bee reported on April 20 that CalPERS was investigating Asubonten.
We were thus alarmed to see that Asubonten was set to present on a business as usual basis at a May 15 board meeting and wrote up the development. On May 14, in response to an e-mail from reader Brandon, CEO Marcie Frost stated that “Officer in Charge, Marlene Timberlake D’Adamo, is presenting to the Finance and Administration Committee tomorrow.”
On Sunday late in the evening, we e-mailed CalPERS head of Stakeholder Relations, Brad Pacheco, asking “Am I to assume he is no longer CalPERS’ CFO? If not, when will the page be restored?”
On Monday, at 12:55 PM Pacific time, Pacheco confirmed Asubonten was no longer with CalPERS. That was before employees received an e-mail, at 1:10 PM PDT, announcing that Marlene Timberlake D’Adamo would serve as CalPERS’ interim Chief Financial Officer. Hiltzik and Ashton reported on the development shortly thereafter. Both stories credited Naked Capitalism as having raised the red flags about Asubonten’s misrepresentations about his record.
Hiltzik lambasted CalPERS’ “move along, nothing to see here” posture, stressing that California citizens should be concerned about the caliber of leadership at the giant pension fund. From his account:
The circumstances of Asubonten’s departure from the CalPERS executive ranks are unclear. CalPERS made no announcement that he was leaving, but a spokesman acknowledged that he is “no longer with CalPERS.” The spokesman said Asubonten’s departure is being treated as a “personnel matter” and therefore no further information would be provided….
CalPERS also declined to discuss the timing of Asubonten’s departure….
Asubonten’s departure should intensify questions about whether CalPERS management and its board members are up to the task of overseeing a $350-billion retirement and healthcare system serving more than 3 million present and past public employees and their families. The questions apply not only to Asubonten’s qualifications, but the process that led to his appointment to a post with responsibilities requiring top-flight management skills and experience.
Treating his departure as a state secret won’t quell these doubts. That’s especially so given what appears to be CalPERS management’s complicity in exaggerating Asubonten’s work experience. CalPERS should come clean about the process.
Ashton emphasized the timing, although the reason CalPERS was forced to act was that the first Los Angeles Times story was too high profile for CalPERS to stand pat. Given how CEO Marcie Frost backed Asubonten to Hiltzik when CalPERS had clearly not done even the most superficial efforts to check our posts, like clicking on the many links that provided supporting evidence, Frost was clearly of the misguided view that she could brazen this one out. That response raises serious doubts about her judgement.
CalPERS’ efforts to pull a shroud of secrecy over this sorry affair strongly suggest that Asubonten did not go voluntarily. If that is the case, given his history of filing a lawsuit in South Africa against a former employer where he seemed to have very low odds of prevailing, Asubonten is likely to do what he can to fight.
If Asubonten was dismissed through a formal process, which includes a so-called “Skelly hearing,” he can appeal to the State Personnel board. Skelly hearings are private, while State Personnel board appeals are open to the public.
It is highly unlikely that Asubonten could prevail in this scenario. Since he was on probation, the only grounds for reversing a dismissal are that it was fraudulent or discriminatory. Given the overwhelming evidence that we unearthed, as one financial reporter noted, “He should just slink off into the night.” However, if our guesses are right, one upside is that a public hearing would air the evidence that CalPERS relied on its decision. So stay tuned to see if l’affaire Asubonten winds up having an additional episode.