By Robin Respaut and Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A former chief executive of the largest U.S. public pension fund pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud as part of a federal conspiracy case on Friday.
Fred Buenrostro admitted that he intentionally conspired with a former California Public Employees' Retirement System board member and others to accept bribes and devise a fraudulent scheme involving Calpers’ investments. He could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Buenrostro, who served as the pension fund's CEO from 2002 to 2008, met Alfred Villalobos when he served on Calpers Board from 1992 to 1995. Villalobos later founded a placement agency called ARVCO that solicited investments by public pension funds in private equity funds. ARVCO was paid based on the amount invested, according to court documents.
Buenrostro admitted that he accepted gifts, money, travel and other benefits from Villalobos during and after his tenure as Calpers CEO in exchange for using Calpers investments to benefit Villalobos. Villalobos hosted Buenrostro's wedding at his home in Nevada, flew the Calpers chief to Dubai, Hong Kong, and Macau, and provided valuable casino chips to now-former Calpers board members, according to the plea agreement. In 2007, Buenrostro started accepting cash bribes that eventually totaled approximately $200,000 and were delivered to him at a downtown Sacramento hotel in paper bags and a shoe box.
Villalobos' attorney, Bruce Funk, said on Friday his client is "certainly still denying all these new allegations," and they are waiting to see the evidence to support Buenrostro's claims.
Four months before Buenrostro left Calpers in 2008, he signed "a series of fraudulent documents" at Villalobos' request so ARVCO could invest in funds managed by the private equity firm Apollo Group Management, Buenrostro wrote. In return, Apollo wired ARVCO approximately $14 million in fees over two years. Buenrostro admitted he provided Villalobos "intimate access to CALPERS' confidential information" and "had done no due diligence" consistent with his role as Calpers CEO.
In a prepared statement, Calpers condemned Buenrostro's misconduct and ethical breaches, noting the $285 billion pension fund "has taken aggressive steps to implement policies and reforms that strengthen accountability and ensure full transparency."
An Apollo spokesperson declined to comment.
"The story he tells is sad, but true,” said Bill Portanova, attorney for Buenrostro. “He is ready to deal with the consequences, whatever they may be."
Less than two months after Buenrostro stepped down as Calpers CEO, Villalobos hired him as an ARVCO consultant, for which he says he earned $387,000 in salary, a gold Rolex watch worth more than $20,000, travel and other benefits.
From 2010 to 2012, Buenrostro answered inquiries in connection with investigations from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney's Office, some of which Buenrostro says he answered falsely.
(Reporting by Robin Respaut and Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Dan Grebler)