A commentary featured in today’s Wall Street Journal advocates for the Securities and Exchange Commission to punish individual San Diego city officials in the wake of its settlement earlier this month with the city as a whole.
But while SEC won’t punish taxpayers, it can’t afford to go so easy on the officials it’s still investigating. (The SEC doesn’t name the current and former officials under its scrutiny, but former Mayor Dick Murphy, former city manager Michael Uberuaga and former auditor Ed Ryan, as well as members of the City Council, all had degrees of responsibility for and knowledge of the pension fund’s operations.) The SEC must demonstrate that it considers the fraud officials committed against the city’s bondholders to be just as grave as similar frauds in the private sector.
People who invest in municipal bonds do so because they feel that such investments are safer than investing in the common stocks of corporations. That’s why cities and states enjoy access to capital at affordable interest rates. And, for tax reasons, municipal-bond investors often invest in the bonds of the city in which they reside, so they face double jeopardy. In the first place, if city officials are committing fraud, their bonds will turn out not to be as sound (and thus not as valuable) as they thought they were. The second risk is that they will have to pay higher taxes, or suffer lower government services, to cover pension-funding shortfalls in their city’s budget if that is the case.
The commentary is penned by a contributing editor for City Journal, a national policy magazine. You can read it here if you have a WSJ subscription.