COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s top jurist on Tuesday characterized a dispute between Treasurer Curtis Loftis and the board that oversees pension funds for the state’s public workers as “political theater.”
Chief Justice Jean Toal made the comment as the court heard the Retirement System Investment Commission’s lawsuit against Loftis. The commission sued the first-term Republican last week, asking the court to force him to transfer money for an investment that he and the rest of the board approved last November.
Loftis has said he refused to authorize the transfer of nearly $12 million toward a commitment of up to $50 million with Warburg Pincus because the paper trail was not sufficient to assure him that the investment’s terms and fees, as approved by the board, would not change.
Loftis demanded that the agency’s top attorney sign a one-page document he created and, on Monday, the treasurer authorized the transfer after saying affidavits from commission staff included in the lawsuit supplied the “legal sufficiency” he needed all along.
Loftis asked the lawsuit be dismissed as moot after he made the payment. But Hank Wall, an attorney for the commission, said the court needed to settle the matter for the future.
“The treasurer believes that he has superior review power over the investments of the commission,” Wall said.
In response to Wall’s description of the dispute as a “power struggle,” Toal expressed her frustration that the matter was in court in the first place.
“It’s very unseemly to me to use this court for the continuation of a power struggle,” she said. “We are not a venue for political theater.”
As treasurer, Loftis has dual roles under South Carolina law. He sits as one member of the commission, which last November voted to approve the funding of the investment, but he is barred from serving as chairman. The treasurer’s office managed the fund before the Legislature created the commission in 2005, and Loftis is the only elected member of the board and the only one without a required background in finances.
Loftis has repeatedly noted he is the official custodian of the fund for retirees’ pensions. But the commission contends it’s an administrative duty that means only he can write the check, not that he has any veto power over a legally approved investment.
His attorney said Tuesday that Loftis simply wanted to make sure the investment was sound and needed more information before making the transfer, which he did Monday.
“He’s charged with the safekeeping of all custodial funds,” attorney Curtis Dowling told the court. “He’s out to protect those funds. That’s all he wanted to do.”
Loftis didn’t speak to reporters after the hearing but later issued a statement saying he was glad to have had his day in court. Commission chief operating officer Darry Oliver said he hoped the court’s ruling would bring clarity to the situation.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP