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Protector of Pensions Standing on Shaky Ground

Reports show that Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. fails in truthfulness and safeguarding assets

The government program designed to insure workers’ pensions when companies fail is facing financial and security troubles of its own, recent audits indicate, calling into question whether the retirement plans it insures are truly safe.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. is a federal program funded by insurance premiums that are paid by employers. It insures pensions for more than 44 million American workers and retirees in more than 29,000 pension plans, protecting the funds if the employers responsible for the plans should falter.

Trouble is, a series of audits and security breaches suggest that the pension program could soon need a bailout of its own.

An audit last fall found that the organization “did not have effective internal control over financial reporting (including safeguarding assets) and compliance with laws and regulations and its operations.” The finding amounts to a failing grade in the accounting world.

Meanwhile, the organization itself is chronically underfunded, with a deficit in the billions of dollars. And that could lead to deeper trouble if large employers like General Motors or Chrysler were to fail. Those two companies alone could saddle PBGC with a liability of $14.5 billion, the Government Accountability Office recently estimated.

Several members of Congress are alarmed by the situation at PBGC. In a letter this spring to the program’s acting director, Vincent K. Snowbarger, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, called out the program for making “false statements” to Congress and federal auditors, pointing out that such conduct “can be a criminal violation.”

In one case, Grassley said that PBGC misrepresented about how it responded after an unencrypted computer flash drive that contained Social Security numbers was lost by a contractor in a train station parking lot. The incident was not isolated, however, as Grassley went on to list several other instances where PBGC told auditors that steps were taken to correct problems with contractors when they were not.

Now the Senate Special Committee on Aging is currently awaiting its own report from the PBGC’s Office of Inspector General.

“Our efforts to improve the oversight and governance of the PBGC cannot be taken seriously enough,” said committee chair Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., who introduced legislation last year to expand oversight of PBGC. “The pensions of one in six Americans are potentially on the line.”

Michelle Diament is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

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