By Tim Reid
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Former Enron trader and hedge fund billionaire John Arnold may be about to launch a national publicity campaign to convince U.S. voters of the need to reform public pensions, according to a document seen by Reuters.
Arnold, who has given tens of millions of dollars to politicians and groups backing reforms of public pension plans in over a dozen states since 2008, is viewed by some labor unions as an enemy out to destroy their members’ promised retirement benefits, something Arnold fiercely denies. He says he wants to find long term structural solutions, fair to all parties, to bring fiscal sanity to public pensions.
His $1.3 billion philanthropic organization solicited bids for a national pension reform campaign of public relations with an April launch date, according to a Request for Proposals document dated September 19, 2014 that has been reviewed by Reuters.
Arnold has bankrolled pension reform efforts in many individual states in recent years, with mixed success. He has repeatedly said he views the underfunding of many public pension systems as a major fiscal and public policy crisis that needs addressing.
Neither he nor anybody else has previously launched a national publicity campaign aimed at convincing voters of the need to curb the growing costs of public pensions, which threaten to cripple budgets in many cities and states.
According to a September report by the ratings agency Moody's, the funding shortfall for the 25 largest U.S. public pension funds is $2 trillion. Growing costs were significant factors in the recent bankruptcies of Detroit and the California cities of Stockton and San Bernardino.
Officials at the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) declined to answer questions about whether a national campaign was being launched or whether a PR firm had been engaged. Reuters could not independently verify if a campaign is proceeding and if a firm has been hired.
Arnold himself could not be reached for comment.
Leila Walsh, director of communications for the foundation, when asked about the bid document, said: "The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is committed to ensuring that all public workers have a fair and secure retirement. Cities and states across the U.S. are facing a looming pension crisis that is threatening critical investments in education and public safety. People on both the left and right have recognized the urgent need for reform, and we are interested in working with all those who are pursuing reforms that are comprehensive, sustainable, and fair."
The request for proposals seeks a firm to launch a one-year publicity campaign beginning this month.
"We believe that all workers deserve to be part of a system that is fiscally sound, responsibly managed, and that ensures retirement benefits will be paid when due," said the document. "The purpose of this (request) is to solicit proposals from qualified public affairs and communications firms to support LJAF’s pension system reform efforts."
According to the document, the campaign would involve market research, polling and focus groups to test views about public pensions, the development of a bipartisan coalition of groups and individuals seeking pension reform, and the execution of a multi-faceted national communications campaign. It gave no indication of how much money Arnold planned to spend on the campaign.
Arnold has become the dominant figure funding pension reform efforts in recent years, bankrolling ballot initiatives and groups in 25 jurisdictions that largely sought to cut pension benefits.
Arnold was a trader at Enron, the defunct energy company, before going on to make an estimated $3 billion running Centaurus, a Houston-based natural gas trading hedge fund. In 2012 he turned full-time to running the philanthropic foundation with his wife Laura. Its goals are to improve outcomes for criminal justice, education, public accountability and research integrity.
Arnold and his wife donated to President Obama's presidential campaigns, and have given significantly more to Democratic political groups than Republican.
(Reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Martin Howell)