Foss: Welcome steps in St. Clare’s pension fight

Attorney Victoria Esposito speaks about her legal efforts on behalf of St. Clare's pensioners Tuesday in Schenectady.
Attorney Victoria Esposito speaks about her legal efforts on behalf of St. Clare's pensioners Tuesday in Schenectady.

It’s going to be a long fight. 

There was a time, not so very long ago, when a speedy resolution to the St. Clare’s Hospital pension crisis seemed like a real possibility. 

The issue quickly captured the attention of Capital Region lawmakers, who sought state money to assist the 1,100 former hospital employees whose pensions were abruptly eliminated or drastically reduced earlier this year. 

But that effort stalled, and the pensioners were forced to seek help elsewhere. 

Which was, to put it mildly, discouraging. 

The collapse of the St. Clare’s pension fund is a shameful example of how mismanagement, incompetence and a lack of accountability can combine to throw people’s lives into turmoil. What happened was the result of poor decision-making and a failure of oversight, not an act of god that no one could have seen coming. 

I’m not surprised that nobody wants to claim ownership of the pension mess, but I am disappointed.

The St. Clare’s pensioners shouldn’t have to fight so hard for the benefits they earned. 

Last week saw a new — and welcome — front open up in that fight. 

Dozens of former hospital employees filed suit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany and St. Clare’s Corp. over the mishandling of the pension fund. 

Given the failure to obtain justice for the pensioners through other, less litigious means, this was an unfortunate but necessary step. 

Another welcome development has been state Attorney General Letitia James’ investigation into the troubled pension fund, which lacks the money to cover its obligations to retirees. 

In court filings earlier this month, the chief of the Attorney General’s Charities Bureau raised multiple questions about the chain of events that led to the pension crisis, and indicated that the St. Clare’s Corporation has provided zero access to witnesses and less than complete documentation. 

Among the revelations: As the pension fund was falling apart, the corporation directors voted in October 2017 to seek to reinstate federal pension insurance by the start of 2018, which would help offset the loss suffered by individual retirees.

But a couple months later the discussion turned to whether reinstating the insurance would increase the likelihood of being sued, and the coverage was never obtained. 

I’d like to know more about the thought process at work here, and I bet the pensioners would, too.

Because the portrait of the St. Clare’s Corporation emerging from the Attorney General’s court filings is not a flattering one. 

One of my hopes for the Attorney General’s investigation is that it figures out what exactly happened to the pension fund, and recommends a course of action.

A statement from James suggests she intends to do exactly that: “… we are determined to get to the bottom of how this happened and to support the recovery of benefits rightfully owed to these hardworking retirees.” 

The Diocese maintains that it never owned or operated St. Clare’s and isn’t responsible for fixing the pension crisis — a contention that has always struck me as pure baloney. 

St. Clare’s was a Catholic hospital, sponsored by and closely affiliated with the Diocese. Former Bishop Howard Hubbard chaired the hospital’s board of trustees in its final days and negotiated its closure, and current Bishop Edward Scharfenberger sat on the board of directors until fairly recently. 

I am not a lawyer and cannot say for sure whether the Diocese has a legal responsibility to the St. Clare’s retirees. But it clearly has a moral responsibility — one that it’s failed, thus far, to meet. 

The lawsuit and Attorney General investigation are crucial steps toward holding powerful institutions responsible for the distress they’ve financial caused with their bungling of the pension fund. 

And while it’s going to be a long fight, I remain optimistic that the pensioners can win it. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.    

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

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