James Wilbanks was fired Wednesday as executive director of the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System.
Trustees voted 11-0 to fire Wilbanks, but were secretive about the reason for his dismissal.
“Information came to the attention of the board in recent weeks that related to day-to-day operational decisions made by the executive director,” the board said in a news release prepared in response to questions from The Oklahoman. “Based on this information, the board voted to terminate the employment of the executive director.”
Preston Doerflinger, director of the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services, said Wednesday evening he believes the board's action was appropriate.
“The board acted in the best interest of protecting the interests of the teachers who participate in the system and the integrity of the system, itself,” said Doerflinger, who is a member of the Teachers Retirement System Board, but was represented by a designee at Wednesday afternoon's special meeting. “That's really about all I can say at this point.”
Board members said they wanted to reassure teachers and retirees who are clients of the Teachers Retirement System, as well as state taxpayers, that the “system is sound and will not be impacted” by Wednesday's decision.
Assistant Executive Director Joe Ezzell will oversee Teachers Retirement System operations until an interim director is appointed, board members said. A national search for a new director is anticipated.
A report may be published in a few months that could shed further light on Wilbanks' dismissal, one source said.
Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi made the motion to fire Wilbanks, but did not state a reason in her motion and afterward referred all questions to board Chairman James Dickson. Dickson declined to answer questions beyond information contained in the news release.
Wilbanks' dismissal came at the conclusion of a two-hour closed-door meeting that took place in a conference room at the Oklahoma Attorney General's office building.
Reached by telephone, Wilbanks declined to reveal any reasons board members may have given for firing him.
“I have had very limited conversations with the board,” said Wilbanks, who was paid $118,436 as executive director last year.
“As executive director, I am an at-will employee of the board and they make those decisions and it is my job to respect those decisions,” said Wilbanks, 44. “I stand on my record and am proud of the work that we've done at the Teachers Retirement System during my tenure.”
Wilbanks served 41/2 years as executive director.
The pension system's investments have performed well in recent years.
As recently as last June, the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System issued a news release stating the fund's investments had gained 16.3 percent during the first 9 months of fiscal year 2013, raising the fund's assets to more than $11.6 billion. The news release said the system ranked in the “first percentile of all public funds in the United States.”
The governing board selects money managers who guide investments, while Wilbanks was in charge of the office's day-to-day operations.
Wilbanks said he is proud of the “efficiencies” and “culture” he established at the Teachers Retirement System, saying they were able to “do more work with less staff.”
He says he saved teachers more than $20 million through various initiatives he oversaw during his tenure and is also proud of the system's investment returns.
“I look at all of those things and am proud of what we have accomplished,” he said.
Wilbanks' dismissal was sudden and caught many by surprise.
State Sen. Rick Brinkley, chairman of the Senate Pensions Committee, said Wilbanks' termination came as a surprise to him.
“I don't know if it was pension-related. I don't know if it was personnel-related. I don't have a clue,” he said.