Squeezy, the Pension Python, is a snake, and it is quite common for snakes to settle securities fraud charges without admitting or denying guilt.
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On Monday, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced it had settled securities fraud charges with Illinois. The state agreed to pay no fine, admit no guilt, and never again do what it didn't admit to doing in the first place.
Squeezy was not mentioned by name in the official SEC press release. But the alleged fraud involved misleading bond investors about Illinois's long-troubled pension system, so you can bet this villainous cartoon snake was involved.
In November, Illinois Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn introduced Squeezy as a mascot in his grassroots campaign for pension reform. Squeezy is putting the squeeze on the state's finances. Get it?
The campaign offered no solutions and was immediately ridiculed by Mr. Quinn's critics as juvenile. But what else is the guy supposed to do? Illinois pension funds for public employees--including teachers, judges and state representatives--is $97 billion short, and this liability is slowly bankrupting the state.
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The SEC alleged that most of the state's pension shortfall was not due to economic calamities or declines in the stock market. Instead, it was because Illinois's "statutory plan structurally underfunded the state's pension obligations and backloaded the majority of pension contributions far into the future."
In other words, state leaders flat out decided not to put away the money required to fund these plans. This was much easier than cutting the programs that their voters love. They then failed to disclose this material fact to investors who would buy Illinois bonds and finance more of the state's follies.
Mr. Quinn was not governor when all of this happened. Rather, it was Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who retired to a federal penitentiary in Colorado.
Mr. Blagojevich, who was not mentioned in the SEC's action, was convicted on fraud in an unrelated case, including allegations he tried to sell President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat. One potential buyer for this seat, according to federal prosecutors, was former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who recently pleaded guilty to felony charges after standing accused of misusing campaign funds.
Mr. Jackson, of course, was only following in the footsteps of other renowned Illinois politicians, including former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, whose career ended in 1996 when he pleaded guilty to mail fraud.
It has long been common for Illinois politicians to retire to a prison setting. George Ryan, governor from 1999-2003, was convicted of racketeering. Dan Walker, governor from 1973-1977, pleaded guilty to bank fraud. Otto Kerner, governor from 1961-1968, was convicted of bribery.
Piling up pension obligations and not warning investors about it seems a fairly petty offense by contrast, particularly when Illinois's mounting pension problems were no big secret.
Illinois is now the second state in history to be charged by the SEC with securities fraud. The SEC sacked New Jersey with similar charges in 2010. I guess there's not much to be done about this sort of thing, though, besides put out a press release.
"If a private broker or a bank did this, they'd face a tsunami of lawsuits," said Chicago securities lawyer Andrew Stoltmann. "But because it's the state...you're not going to have contingency-fee lawyers trying to spook up cases."
The SEC didn't name a soul responsible. It didn't even demand a fine. With so many billions in unfunded liabilities, what would be the point?
Illinois is in enough trouble already. It does not need Squeezy, the Pension Python. It needs Puff, the Magic Dragon.
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at firstname.lastname@example.org or tellittoal.com)