State Treasurer Curtis Loftis won't back down.
His relationship with the South Carolina Retirement System Investment Commission has been contentious in recent years, and he doesn't see that changing in the future, especially following last month's appointment of Aiken resident and former state Sen. Greg Ryberg as the agency's chief operating officer.
“Let's just say they do not appreciate my style of governance,” said Loftis. “To be blunt about it, they don't like it that I can go directly to the people of the state. But I don't work for them; I work for the working people of South Carolina.”
The Commission is responsible for managing and investing all assets of the South Carolina Retirement System, which is the pension fund for state employees. Loftis is one of the commissioners that oversee the agency.
On Monday, he was in Aiken to visit local schools, and he stopped by the Aiken Standard office.
“I am passionate about my job,” he said, “and I don't make any apologies for it.”
Loftis has accused the Commission of being corrupt and said he doesn't like how it has handled a $27 billion portfolio.
He said he also is upset about the $15 billion shortfall that the pension fund is facing.
“The simplest way to explain it is that we pay too much in fees; we earn too little in returns; and the mismatch puts us at risk,” Loftis said. “We're in the bottom 20 percent of our peer group, and our peer group is all public plans over $1 billion.”
Loftis also has complained about the Commission withholding information from him and working against him.
Ryberg's new assignment is Loftis' latest concern.
“He's a smart man, and he's an accomplished man, but he doesn't meet the qualifications for the job,” Loftis said. “The person should be from the investment world and somebody who has not just been a trader. It needs to be someone who has had their hands on compliance, auditing and custodial accounts.”
Ryberg replaced Darry Oliver, who claimed he was bullied by Loftis and resigned on Oct. 11 during a heated meeting in Columbia. Loftis reportedly walked out of the meeting after a heated exchange with board Chairman Reynolds Williams. The issues between Loftis and Oliver led the Commission to pass a new anti-bullying policy at that meeting.
According to Loftis, choosing Ryberg to replace Oliver is part of an effort to rein him in. The state treasurer also said he isn't happy that Danny Varat is the Commission's public information officer. Varat worked for Ryberg when he was a senator, serving as director of research for the committees that Ryberg chaired.
“In the last year, they have hired two people who spent a month of their lives trying to have me thrown off of the commission,” Loftis said. “One has to wonder, does it even pass the smell test to have Mr. Ryberg and Mr. Varat working for the commission? I don't think it passes the smell test at all.”
Ryberg, responding to Loftis' comments in an interview on Tuesday at the Aiken Standard, called the state treasurer's words and actions “sad, disappointing, regrettable and totally nonproductive.”
Ryberg insisted that issues with Loftis are the last thing on his mind from day to day, and, in his new position, state retirees are what are at the top of his priority list.
Ryberg helped author the legislation that created the Commission, which was established in 2005. The agency has seven commissioners – five appointed by the Budget and Control Board, the director of the Public Employee Benefit Authority and a retired member of the South Carolina Retirement System. Loftis, as the state treasurer, is the only member of the Budget and Control Board who can opt to serve himself on the Commission rather than appoint someone.
In 2012, when Ryberg was still a senator, he proposed an amendment that would have required certain qualifications of voting members.
In doing do, Loftis would not have qualified to serve, and he would have had to appoint someone to the commission. The amendment failed.
“I wasn't asking to remove anybody,” Ryberg said. “I was just saying that he (Loftis), like other members of the Budget and Control Board, appoint somebody that meets the level of stringent qualifications that I insisted on when we set up the Commission. It was consistent with all the amendments I sponsored in my 20 years of service (as a senator) that were for the betterment of South Carolina.”
Ryberg also defended his qualifications for the Commission's chief operating officer position.
“There is nobody that knows the (Retirement) System better than Greg Ryberg,” he said. “There is nobody that knows the members of the General Assembly better than Greg Ryberg. I am not involved in the investment of money. My job is on the operations side. I support the investment side with human resources, with IT (information technology) and with anything else that can be provided by the operational side of an agency.”
In addition, Ryberg questioned Loftis' negative evaluation of the Commission's portfolio management.
“I don't know what peer group that he was talking about,” Ryberg said. “But if you look at the benchmark for equities, bonds and alternative investments, we exceed the benchmark. I would say we are in a good position relative to other people that have the same asset mix that we do.”
Dede Biles is a reporter for the Aiken Standard. She has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Editor's note: The final quote was mistakenly attributed to Loftis in a previous version of this story. The Aiken Standard regrets the error.