Ohio’s public pension funds turn to outside lobbyists for clout

Ohio’s four largest public pension systems, which control $200 billion on behalf of 1.9 million workers and retirees, are paying more than $407,000 a year for outside lobbyists to make their cases with state lawmakers and federal officials, public records show.

Since October 2015, Ohio Public Employees Retirement System has paid $400,000 to Republican lobbyist Neil Clark and his firm Grant Street Consultants. Clark is an independent lobbyist whose client list includes payday lenders, gambling interests and beer and wine distributors.

OPERS, which has $94 billion in assets, put Clark on a monthly retainer of $10,000 in October 2015 and later reduced it to $7,500 a month beginning in November 2016.

“We have a good staff, don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy with our staff but you know lobbyists sometimes they can open doors that you can’t always. They represent a different kind of opportunity for us,” said OPERS Executive Director Karen Carraher.

Since its independent lobbyist on federal matters, James Miller, retired in late 2016, OPERS has handled federal issues with in-house staff. Miller’s contract had been for $67,000 a year. Additionally, OPERS reduced its in-house lobby staff by one.

“Philosophically, I don’t understand why you’d feel the need to go retain outside lobbying resources when you have a full complement of lobbyists in-house,” said Geoff Hetrick of Public Employee Retirees Inc., which represents retirees in OPERS. “It just seems a bit redundant, if not expensive, to be retaining outside lobbying help.”

Ohio’s second largest pension fund, State Teachers Retirement System, has had a contract since November 2014 with Republican lobbyist Leah Pappas Porner. She is an independent lobbyist for health care companies, lenders, utilities and a charter school company and others.

Initially, STRS paid $5,000 per month but the retainer fee increased to $6,000 per month in July 2018. The system has paid Porner some $261,000 over the past four years to handle both state and federal government relations.

“From our perspective, I’d rather they do it in-house and save the money,” said Robin Rayfield of the Ohio Retired Teachers Association, which represents 22,000 members in the STRS system.

“As a quasi-governmental entity, STRS Ohio monitors various pension and health care issues that come up before the legislative branch at the federal and statewide levels that could impact our system. We believe the interests of our 500,000 contributing members and retirees are well served though the actions and advocacy of our internal and external governmental relations program,” STRS spokesman Nick Treneff said in a statement.

STRS leaders were not made available for comment for this story.

Hiring outside lobbyists appears to be a change in strategy by the two pension giants in the past four years. Previously, their lobbying had been done by in-house staff, according to the Ohio Lobbying Activities Center records.

Independent lobbyists are paid hourly fees or monthly retainers by multiple clients. Some large organizations prefer to have in-house staff handle government relations. For example, Ohio State University has six registered lobbyists – all university employees.

Carraher describes Clark as someone who can open doors at the Ohio Statehouse.

“The meetings we’ve been able to get are the big things. I can tell you we’ve gotten into offices with meetings that would have taken a lot longer (to get) and I’m not sure we would have had the same outcome,” Carraher said. “Obviously, he has other clients that he works on but we are getting results from our work and that’s the main thing for us.”

Carraher said Clark and his team are assisting the pension fund now with an effort to get lawmakers to reduce cost of living allowances for retirees – something that requires a state law change. OPERS tried unsuccessfully in 2017 – while Clark was on retainer — to get authorization to change the COLA.

Related: Ohio's biggest pension fund looking at benefits cuts

Related: Cost of living allowances could be reduced for Ohio's public pension fund

The Ohio Highway Patrol Retirement System, the smallest of the state’s five public pension funds, assigns its lobbying duties to its executive director Mark Atkeson.

The other two mid-size systems – School Employees Retirement System and Ohio Police & Fire Pension Fund – have long used a combination of outside lobbyists and in-house government relations staff.

Related: Ohio pension funds lost money in 2018, returns show

School Employees Retirement System, which represents bus drivers, janitors and other non-teacher staff in schools, contracts with Voyrs Advisors, which employs former Ohio Senate President Tom Niehaus, a Republican who was a primary driver behind the 2012 public pension overhaul. The current contract pays Voyrs $40,000 a year.

SERS also has a $40,000 a year lobbying contract with Carol Nolan Drake of Carlow Consulting to advise the pension fund on federal matters. For nine years, Drake served as the in-house lobbyist for OPERS.

Ohio Police & Fire Pension Fund pays Adam Hewit of Darryl Dever & Assoc. $7,250 a year for lobbying services. (Dever died in September 2015 in a freak accident at a northern Michigan golf course when he was attacked by bees.)

OP&F also pays $6,500 a month, plus hourly fees, to Williams & Jensen for federal lobbying services.

Lobbying for public pensions in Ohio

Ohio Highway Patrol Retirement System

Director: Mark Atkeson

Founded: 1941

Assets: $825 million

Members & retirees: 4,300

Lobbying: Atkeson handles it himself

Ohio Police & Fire

Director: John Gallagher

Founded: 1965

Assets: $14 billion

Members & retirees: 61,000

Lobbying: Williams & Jensen is paid $6,500 a month for federal affairs while Adam Hewit of Darryl Dever & Associates is paid $7,250 a month for state issues. Gallagher and two in-house staff members are also registered to lobby for OP&F.

School Employees Retirement System of Ohio

Director: Richard Strensrud

Founded: 1937

Assets: $14.2 billion

Members & retirees: 240,000

Lobbying: SERS contracts with Carlow Consulting for federal issues and Vorys Advisors for state issues. Each firm is paid $40,000 a year. Two in-house staff, including Strensrud, are also registered to lobby for SERS.

State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio:

Director: Michael Nehf

Founded: 1919

Assets: $78.6 billion

Members & retirees: 493,500

Lobbying: Leah Pappas Porner of Calfee Halter & Griswold is paid $60,000 a year to handle state affairs. Three in-house staff, including Nehf, are registered to lobby for STRS.

Ohio Public Employees Retirement System

Director: Karen Carraher

Founded: 1935

Assets: $94 billion

Members & retirees: 1,118,199

Lobbying: James Miller is paid $65,000 a year for federal affairs while Neil Clark of Grant Street Consulting is paid $90,000 a year for state lobbying. Five in-house staff, including Carraher, are also registered to lobby for OPERS.

Sources: Ohio Retirement Study Council; pension systems Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports; Dayton Daily News research

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