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In Oregon, Treasury Officials and Investment Firms Cozy Up for Business

Oregon's investments for its pension funds, unlike those of many states, are doing well, thank you, and its investment officials are frequently wined and dined by the investment funds whose services the officials oversee.

Over the weekend, several stories about troubled state and local pension funds were published. In Seattle, officials are chasing down information about $20 million the city invested in a now-insolvent hedge fund. And in California, cities' investments have not paid off as expected, forcing some local governments to cut other programs to pay for pensions. Across the country, the downturn has put a strain on many states' fiscal health, and has caused extreme losses in higher-risk investments like pension funds.

But not so in Oregon, where investments are doing well, and state investment officers are doing even better.

The Oregonian reports that state investment officers are being wined and dined by the private investment firms whose services to the state they oversee. State Treasury officers, paid on average "just shy of $200,000 last year," were treated to resort hotels, first-class airfare and high-end dinners -- "all in the name of public service."

The cozy relationship, reports the Oregonian, raises questions about whether the first-class treatment skews officers' ability to oversee the investment firms that treat them so lavishly. For their part, the firms stand to gain quite a bit if they stay in the good graces of state Treasury officers:

Public investors such as Oregon are lucrative customers. Besides the cash to invest, investment firms collect huge fees for their day-to-day work. Oregon's pension system alone paid $335 million in investment fees and expenses last year. .... The concept is much like an individual investor figuring out how to put spare cash to work in profitable ways. Except Oregon has billions in cash. Profits from investments cover state retiree pensions and care for Oregon's injured and disabled workers.

Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler announced last week that he was reviewing travel protocols, though Oregon Treaury's chief investment officer Ron Schmitz has said high-end travel is "necessary normal business practice." "We consider none of it luxurious," he told the newspaper.

But that's not what it sounds like from communications between investment officers and the investment firms.

"I'm only packing my swimsuit, Tevas, and sun tan lotion and you guys will just have to find me on the beach or surfing the waves," one Treasury employee wrote to an firm representative. The firm ended up paying for his stay in a Four Seasons Resort in Mexico.

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