Torsella back on PSERS board amid internal and external investigations

    Pa. State Treasurer Joe Torsella this year became the first Democrat since 1994 to lose reelection to state-level office in Pennsylvania. (Image via Pa. Treasurer's Office/Pittsburgh City Paper)

    In a unanimous vote, the Pennsylvania state Senate voted to send former state Treasurer Joe Torsella back to the state’s teachers pension board.

    He’ll now rejoin the 15-member board that oversees Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees Retirement System, which manages $64 billion in investments to make current and future retirement payments to more than 600,000 teachers, janitors, and principals.

    His approval by the state Senate ends a brief, four month layover that started with the swearing in of new state Treasurer Stacy Garrity, who beat Torsella’s bid for a second term in 2020.

    The treasurer has a permanent seat overseeing the fund. Torsella will now be serving a three year term as an appointee of Gov. Tom Wolf, jumping back into contentious debates about the oversight and direction of the fund.

    PSERS is currently facing an internal investigation into erroneous investment returns certified as accurate in Dec. 2020, which led school districts to provide extra pension contributions. Torsella, at the time, questioned the vote and abstained. 

    Pa. teachers to pay more in retirement contributions as pension fund backtracks on faulty investment data

    The board on Monday walked back those numbers and downgraded the funds returns, passing the statutory contribution increase to nearly 100,000 teachers hired in the past decade.

    Torsella built a reputation as an opponent of PSERS’ status quo in his four years on the board, pushing for the pension fund to release travel expenses and advised against investing teacher’s retirement dollars into high fee Wall Street firms.

    The fund has gravitated to risky alternative investments, from hedge funds to private equity to real estate, to make up for underinvestment and losses during the Great Recession.

    His appointment was backed by Garrity as part of a nascent reform faction that has clashed with the board’s status quo. She welcomed him back to the board in a tweet Tuesday afternoon. Torsella did not immediately reply for a request for comment for this story.

    The stakes have also increased as the pension faces a federal investigation, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.