The leader of Colorado’s $60 billion-plus public pension system has been on a leave of absence for more than a month and officials at the Public Employees’ Retirement Association won’t discuss why or how long he will be away.
Ron Baker, who is paid more than $400,000 a year to lead PERA, went on leave March 8. A day later, the organization’s 16-member board held an unscheduled meeting where they convened in executive session for nearly three hours to discuss “specific legal questions.”
“There was no other business to discuss,” meeting minutes say.
Patrick von Keyserling, a PERA spokesman, confirmed that Baker has been on leave since March 8, but declined to say why or to answer whether the absence was initiated by Baker or the PERA board.
Von Keyserling also declined to answer how long the leave will last and whether Baker is being paid while away.
“Leaves of absence are personnel matters and PERA does not publicly discuss any personnel matters,” he said in an email.
Efforts by The Colorado Sun in recent weeks to reach Baker — including through phone calls, text messages, emails and solicitations for comment via PERA — were unsuccessful.
Amy McGarrity, PERA’s chief operating officer and chief investment officer, is serving as the organization’s acting executive director. Von Keyserling said “this occurs when the executive director is on leave pursuant to PERA’s organizational chart and our succession planning policy.”
PERA Board Chairman Marcus Pennell mentioned in passing during the board’s most recent meeting on March 24 that McGarrity was leading the organization while Baker is on leave. Pennell didn’t elaborate on why.
Reached by The Sun, Pennell referred a reporter to his remarks during the March 24 board meeting.
Three other PERA board members — state Treasurer Dave Young, Denver Auditor Tim O’Brien and board Vice Chair Suzanne Kubec, who works in the Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration — responded to Colorado Sun inquiries about Baker with an almost identical response about McGarrity serving as acting executive director while Baker is on leave. They each referred further questions to von Keyserling.
In January, the PERA board voted to award Baker a 19% performance bonus and increased his salary by 4%, according to meeting minutes.
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There are about 150,000 people who receive PERA benefits in Colorado and more than 200,000 people actively contributing to the pension system, according to the organization’s 2021 annual report. The employees of more than 500 government agencies and public entities in Colorado receive retirement and other benefits from PERA.
The Colorado legislature has pumped hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into PERA in recent years to shore up the pension system, which has a large unfunded financial liability to its members. The liability was $27.2 billion as of Dec. 31, 2021, down $3.8 billion from the previous year, the annual report said.
PERA is a constant focus for the legislature because pension benefits are considered one of the biggest perks of being a government employee in Colorado.
Baker was appointed to be PERA’s executive director in 2018. He has worked at the organization since 1994 and was chief administrative officer before taking on the top job. He became a member of PERA’s executive leadership team in 2009.