The Sacramento Bee’s Adam Ashton published a solid piece, Ousted CalPERS CFO fought to keep job after inquiry found resume embellishments, on the dismissal Charles Asubonten.
Ashton brought the story to its final chapter by describing how Asubonten made the facts of his sudden departure public by contesting CalPERS “rejection” of him during his probation. Ashton also gave our role in exposing Asubonten’s resume fabrications prominent play, which was sporting of him given that we’ve given him a hard time for other stories that looked to hew too closely to the giant pension fund’s spin.
Key portions from his story:
Charles Asubonten was in a corner by the time CalPERS dismissed him from the high-paying job he’d just started as the chief financial officer for the nation’s largest public pension fund…
His last-ditch appeal to the State Personnel Board reiterated his contention that he accurately described his work experience, and that CalPERS’ own executives failed to ask him during interviews about the questionable period of his career that drew the attention of Naked Capitalism blogger Susan Webber.
Ashton also included how CEO Marcie Frost and Matt Jacobs failed to do adequate due diligence on Asubonten, and how Frost and Board President Priya Mathur defended him despite the voluminous documentation of on Asubonten’s misrepresentations that we’d published:
Their failure to question him, Asubonten’s attorney wrote, mattered because it showed that Asubonten did not attempt to deceive CalPERS Chief Executive Marcie Frost and Chief Counsel Matt Jacobs when they interviewed him in August 2017…
Before Webber’s report, Asubonten had been developing a good reputation at CalPERS. Frost defended him when Webber first raised questions about him. So did CalPERS Board of Administration President Priya Mathur.
There are nevertheless two curious aspects to this story. The first is that it does not mention Mike Hiltzik’s articles in the Los Angeles Times, particularly his first piece, Questions about new CalPERS CFO’s background and experience should be taken seriously by the pension fund, which was clearly what forced CalPERS to investigate Asubonten. That fact should alarm CalPERS beneficiaries and California taxpayers. Frost, other CalPERS executives, and the board were circling the wagons behind someone who had among other things filed false documents that had been sworn under penalty of perjury in a role that put him in charge of banking relationships. Resume fabrications are unacceptable in virtually any position for good reason, and they should have set off alarms for someone in a role with financial responsibilities. Yet it was only when l’affaire Asubonten became too high profile did CalPERS decide to investigate.
The second is the timing of Ashton’s story. We posted on Asubonten’s State Personnel Board filing on July 31 and Hiltzik followed up almost immediately.
Perhaps Ashton was waiting for a slow news day and it took longer to arrive than he expected. I’ve found myself in the position of writing about something later than I wanted to because more pressing stories got in the way.
However, another possibility is that Ashton was planning to write a somewhat different piece and got left in the lurch by CalPERS. On Tuesday, CalPERS had the innocuous-looking item 8d on its Board of Administration agenda, an “oral report” by board member Bill Slaton on the Performance, Compensation & Talent Management Committee. I had been told that CalPERS would present what it intended to do about its recruiting practices so as to prevent another Asubonten-like episode.
As one person who sat in on the meeting told me, “What Slaton said came and went so fast that it was over before I realized it had begun.” Another stated that Slaton said that he and board member Richard Costigan had discussed the matter with staff and were satisfied with what they intended to do.
I don’t put much faith in tea and cookies conversations like this. And it may be that CalPERS did itself a PR disservice yet again by opting for secrecy. Ashton may have been holding back on his final Asubonten report to spin it with, “CalPERS has learned a lesson and here is what it is doing.” Thus it may be that being deprived of a more positive spin led to CalPERS getting yet another rehash of an episode that reveals a dangerously lax attitude towards checks and controls. And if CalPERS has made at best minimal changes, it’s sure to gin up even more visible and costly mistakes down the road.