EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Pension

July 30, 2007

Far-flung resorts beckon Essex retirement board members

They dined at Emeril's steakhouse, slept at a resort casino on the Vegas Strip, even teed off at a PGA Championship golf course in Southern California.

Members of the Essex Regional Retirement Board took nine out-of-state trips in the last two years for conferences and meetings with money managers, often staying at luxurious resorts and eating at fancy restaurants as taxpayers helped pick up the bill.

Since 2005, board members spent $37,852 on trips to San Diego, Las Vegas, Ft. Lauderdale, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Taxpayers helped cover the costs, from a $339-a-night hotel room on Capitol Hill to a $3 ATM transaction fee in Vegas.

Board members say the conferences help them make crucial decisions on the local pension system, which oversees public-employee pensions for 19 towns and six regional school districts North of Boston.

"We haven't overdone it," said Timothy Bassett, the executive director and chairman of the Essex board. "If you want to do your job, invest the money well and hit the returns, you have to go out and learn some things."

But a report last year by the Pioneer Institute questioned the value of travel by board members, given that they hire professional advisers to manage their pension investments. The Boston think tank said board members across the state exploit weak controls on travel expenses for questionable trips to popular tourist destinations.

"The least that can be said," the report concluded, "is that many board members have taken advantage of these opportunities with what appears to be excessive zeal."

Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation concurred.

"I can see people wanting to go some place quiet in the middle of nowhere to discuss the complexities of the pension system," she said. "But Vegas wouldn't match that description."

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