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Platinum’s NYCRS hire is a reminder about why we need strong governance

It is right to scrutinise the relationship between public pensions and investment managers; the long-term health of the private markets industry will benefit.

On Monday, it emerged that a chief investment officer at one of North America’s largest pension systems was crossing the aisle. Alex Doñé, who oversaw $265 billion of assets for the five pensions that comprise the New York City Retirement Systems, joined Platinum Equity as a managing director.

The Los Angeles-headquartered buyout firm has a longstanding relationship with NYCRS. According to PEI data, at least one of NYCRS’ constituent pension funds has invested in each of Platinum’s funds since the firm’s Platinum Equity Capital Partners II, which closed in 2008, amounting to more than $1 billion in total.

On Tuesday, a drop of rain fell on the parade. In comments first reported by Bloomberg, New York City comptroller Brad Lander said he had ordered an internal investigation into whether Doñé had complied with all the rules governing his move to the private sector after his resignation at the end of 2021.

“It raises concern when the CIO for retirement systems that invest billions of public dollars with Wall Street firms goes directly to employment with a fund that the systems have invested in,” Lander said in a statement. “I’ll be looking closely at strengthening our post-employment rules during my tenure in light of this news.”

It is right that the comptroller should look into whether any revolving door issues have been breached. As the comptroller’s office notes, the evidence so far suggests that Doñé recused himself of all matters related to Platinum in November, in accordance with the rules. Former public servants are banned from appearing before their former place of work for one year after the end of their tenure and there is nothing to suggest this has been breached.

The episode is a reminder that it’s not uncommon for investment professionals at public institutions to cross the aisle to join the private investment management industry, and that such moves are right to be subject to scrutiny. Memories are still fresh of a mid-2000’s pay-to-play scandal involving several PE firms and placement agents, then New York State comptroller Alan Hevesi, political operative Hank Morris and the New York State Common Retirement Fund. Morris even wrote an exculpatory play about it, which PEI reviewed in December.

The scandal involving New York State Common led to other public pension funds in the state, including NYCRS, being banned from dealing with placement agents, restricting it to re-ups and opportunities offered by consultants. So strict have the restrictions on public officials become that when PEI interviewed then NYCRS head of private equity David Enriquez at a London hotel in 2019, the entire interview was conducted over complimentary tap water as Enriquez turned down our offer to buy him lunch or even a coffee.

Public pensions today have formalised – some might say rigid – investment policies, while live-streamed committee meetings and freedom of information rules shine light on once-dark areas. Some argue this makes them less nimble than other institutional investors, but transparency and strong governance are paramount. The recipients of that capital, including the private markets industry, will benefit in the long run.

Contact the author at rod.j@peimedia.com