Sen. Merkley: Oregon should drop private prison investments
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon state employee pension fund should drop its investments in two prisons companies whose facilities have been used to detain immigrants, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley says.
Oregon has $2 million invested in two prison companies, even though Oregon pioneered statewide sanctuary status. New York state and California recently dropped the same two companies from their own pension funds.
“I think it’s way past time for fundamental values to be reflected in our investment decisions,” Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, told The Associated Press late Monday when asked about the investments. Merkley is a main critic in Congress of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
The Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene, Oregon, noted in a recent editorial that in 1987, the state Legislature passed the Oregon Anti-Apartheid Act, enabling the pension fund to divest from South Africa because of its brutal repression of majority blacks.
“Progress has been slow since then,” the newspaper said.
As AP reported last week, Oregon’s pension fund also has a $233 million investment in Novalpina Capital, a private equity firm that with partners bought a majority share of NSO Group, an Israeli spyware company.
Human rights groups say NSO Group’s spyware has been used by repressive regimes against human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents in Mexico, the Middle East and North Africa.
Oregon treasury officials have said they cannot comment on private equity investments, which go into companies that are not publicly traded on a stock exchange.
Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read’s office has insisted that it can’t drop the prison companies, CoreCivic and Geo Group, because they’re part of an index fund, and only the index provider can determine what’s added or dropped. If Oregon officials intervene, the pension fund would incur costs that violate the “paramount objective” of making money, Read’s office said earlier this year.
California and New York dropped their investments despite the prison companies being in an index fund.
“The fact that New York and California have already dropped investments in prison companies shows that this is a path that is available to us, and I think it’s the right path,” Merkley said.
CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said Tuesday the company has played a role in America’s immigration system for more than 30 years, for both Democrat and Republican administrations. She said CoreCivic does not enforce immigration laws and will never house unaccompanied minors.
Geo Group said it has never advocated for immigration enforcement policies and does not manage any facilities housing unaccompanied minors.
Rukaiyah Adams, the chairwoman of the Oregon Investment Council, which oversees the state’s $77 billion pension fund, said last month the council is moving toward stronger environmental, social and governance standards, known as ESG. Adams noted the treasury last year hired a staffer to focus on that, but acknowledged the state has catching up to do.
Merkley, a former speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, said that if the investment council feels it doesn’t have the statutory authority to consider issues like human rights and climate change in making investment decisions, the Oregon Legislature should provide them with that ability.
Senate President Peter Courtney declined to comment. House Speaker Tina Kotek and a spokeswoman for the Oregon State Treasury did not respond to requests for comment.
Rep. Diego Hernandez, a Portland Democrat in the Oregon House, said he believes the Legislature should take up the issue, but noted that the 2020 session is a short one, and the long 2021 session would be more realistic timing.
Investors around the globe are increasingly incorporating social values like climate change and human rights in deciding where to put their money. Asset managers in the United States consider such criteria across $11.6 trillion in assets, representing roughly $1 out of every $4 under professional management, according to a 2018 survey by the U.S. Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment.
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