The Oops Factor and a Crackdown on Retirement Plan Advisors

In recent discussions with asset managers, pension trustees and consultants, investment fraud continues to attract attention. It is no surprise that people want to know more about what constitutes bad practice versus crossing the line, especially in the aftermath of a devastating few years of economic losses. New disclosure regulations are another catalyst for learning more about how to avoid trouble. Email your request if you want more information about what can be done to detect fraud and/or would like to receive research and thought leadership on the topic of investment fraud.

Impending changes to fiduciary standards and allegations of fiduciary breach likewise continue to create a stir.

In "The EBSA Cracks Down on Retirement Plan Advisors," AdvisorOne's Melanie Waddell (March 26, 2012) describes a material increase in enforcement actions brought by the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL"), Employee Benefits Security Administration ("EBSA"). Besides effecting nearly 3,500 civil cases in 2011, EBSA closed 302 criminal cases with "129 individuals being indicted," "75 cases being closed with guilty pleas or convictions" and an excess of $1.3 billion in monetary damages collected. Quoting Andy Larson with the Retirement Learning Center, the article mentions fiduciary negligence as a key concern of regulation and a driving force behind a proposed expansion of ERISA fiduciary duties to numerous professionals who work with retirement plans in an advisory capacity.

ERISA Attorney David Pickle points out that fraud and embezzlement of 401(k) plan money have been investigated for years by the DOL and U.S. Department of Justice ("DOJ") but recent investigations are being done now as part of the formal Contributory Plans Criminal Project ("CPCP"). He observes that "the DOL is conducting an increasing number of investigations of financial service providers, including registered advisers, banks and trust companies (both as trustees or custodians but also as asset managers), and consultants. For other insights about ERISA pain points, read "An Excerpt From: K&L Global Government Solutions (R) 2012: Annual Outlook."

According to the ERISA enforcement manual, civil violations include:

  • Failure to operate a plan prudently and for the exclusive benefit of participants
  • Use of plan assets to benefit the plan administrator, sponsor and other related parties
  • Failure to properly value plan assets at the current fair market value
  • Failure to adhere to the terms of a plan (assuming that those terms are compatible with ERISA)
  • Failure to properly select and monitor service providers
  • Unlawfully taking action against a plan participant who seeks to exercise his or her rights.

Criminal violations include:

  • Embezzlement of monies
  • Accepting kickbacks
  • Making false statements.

The "oops - I didn't know" strategy is unlikely to serve those who work with or for pension plans. The spotlight continues to focus on ways to improve the management of $17+ trillion U.S. retirement system and rightly so. There is so much at stake for millions of people.

George Washington said that "In executing the duties of my present important station, I can promise nothing but purity of intentions, and, in carrying these into effect, fidelity and diligence.

ERISA and public pension trustees are likewise tasked to be faithful and diligent, among other things. For those who choose a different path, the outcome can be dire indeed. Jail time and stiff penalties as well as legal costs are a few of the potential costs associated with a fraud conviction, not to mention shame and the loss of income.

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