The sudden firing of James Wilbanks as executive director of the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System came after trustees discovered he had granted severance packages to a dozen employees without obtaining required approval from the director of the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services.
Wilbanks said he was unaware of the legal requirement for approval when he signed off on the severance agreements.
“I did this believing it was appropriate and that it best protected the interests of the system and all of the clients of the system,” Wilbanks told The Oklahoman. “Had I known that the approval was required, I absolutely would have complied with the technical provision.”
Twelve unclassified employees of the state Teachers Retirement System have been granted severance packages totaling $301,233.05 since Wilbanks became executive director in January 2009, according to documents obtained by The Oklahoman through the state Open Records Act.
The severance packages ranged in amount from $13,548.43 to $58,738.58 and appeared to be calculated in accordance with a formula provided in state law for compensating unclassified employees whose jobs are eliminated for “budgetary reasons.”
Trustees of the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System surprised many pension system participants when they voted 11-0 to fire Wilbanks on Oct. 2, even though the system had seemingly thrived under Wilbanks' leadership, obtaining high rates of return on investments while operating with fewer employees.
Trustees initially were secretive about the reason for Wilbanks' dismissal but recently acknowledged that Wilbanks' failure to obtain approval for the severance payments prompted their decision.
“This decision was difficult for many board members as we felt the system as a whole was moving in the right direction,” board members said in a prepared statement. “During his time as director, Dr. Wilbanks streamlined agency operations and saved the agency millions of dollars. But complying with state statute is not optional. As board members we have a fiduciary duty to guard against anything that be a detriment to the system and its beneficiaries.”
Board members said based on the information they have received to date, they believe the statute that was violated was a civil matter rather than a criminal matter, so they have not felt the need to contact law enforcement authorities.
Trustees said they have requested an audit and will await the results of that audit before deciding whether any further action is needed.
Trustees said they wanted to reassure teachers, retirees and taxpayers that the retirement system remains “sound and will not be impacted by this matter.”
Wilbanks' failure to obtain approval for the severance plan from the director of the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services would appear to be particularly sensitive since agency Director Preston Doerflinger also serves on the Board of Trustees of the Teachers Retirement System.
Among other things, the Office of Management and Enterprise Services is supposed to review severance plans to make sure those plans demonstrate that funds are available to cover projected costs and contain estimates of anticipated cost savings or reduced expenditures.
For the most part, Wilbanks said severance packages were offered to individuals when it was possible to eliminate positions and save the system money by operating more efficiently.
“One of the many things we accomplished at Teachers Retirement during my tenure was finding some efficiencies,” he said. “When I first arrived, we had 52 full-time employees, and when I departed, I believe we were at 33.”
By operating with fewer employees, the agency has saved much more on salaries than it spent on severance payments.
“I think everyone who knows me knows that I am a straight shooter,” he said. “I absolutely poured my heart and soul into working every day on behalf of the teachers, to protect their retirement and do everything we could to give them the best retirement that we could under the provisions of the law.”