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PERA board votes to investigate one of its own

SANTA FE – Board members for one of New Mexico’s two large public retirement systems voted Thursday to hire an outside investigator to look into whether one of their own violated state law by traveling to an out-of-state conference earlier this year and possibly getting some of her expenses covered.

After a heated discussion, the Public Employees Retirement Association board voted 7-3 to approve hiring the outside firm, Universal Investigation Services, to investigate the travel of board member Patricia French of Albuquerque.

In March, French attended a conference in California of the National Association of Security Professionals. On the day of the conference, a PERA committee approved a $150 million investment deal with one of the conference’s sponsors.

Some board members called the investigation unnecessary, pointing out that French has publicly acknowledged traveling to the conference and acting as a moderator in a panel discussion.

“I, for one, think it’s a waste of money and time … to persist in this behavior,” board member Cathy Townes said.

However, other members said the board, which is self-policing, has a duty to investigate the matter, even if doing so is uncomfortable.

The PERA board voted in June to authorize an investigation, but subsequent attempts to hire an outside vendor to do the work had stalled since supporters could not round up the seven votes necessary to do so.

“That’s what we asked for, and that’s what we should move forward on,” said board member Claudia Armijo, who was among the seven members voting in favor of hiring the outside investigator.

Rosario Vega Lynn, an attorney representing French, called the investigation an attempt to distract from management of the pension fund, which covers about 90,000 active and retired state, county and municipal employees.

“It was not until after Ms. French spoke loudly and repeatedly about the gross retirement fund mismanagement that (the PERA board chairman and executive director) convinced current board members to spend thousands on a witch hunt over an event that cost less than $500,” Vega Lynn told the Journal.

The price tag for the outside investigator will be limited to slightly more than $6,000, and it could end up costing less, according to PERA. Once the contract is completed, the outside investigator will have 30 days to conduct its probe and schedule a briefing with the board.

French is a longtime PERA board member and former board chairwoman. She is also active in the Democratic Party of New Mexico and is listed as the secretary of the party’s State Platform and Resolutions Committee.