The New York State pension fund has lost about $100 million in investments with BP, the oil giant that has had huge stock declines since a Gulf of Mexico rig explosion set off the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
As Long Island officials said they feared the losses would cost them in future pension contributions, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said Wednesday he will try to lead a class-action shareholder lawsuit against BP.
DiNapoli Wednesday hired a Manhattan law firm to make the New York State Common Retirement Fund the lead plaintiff in four suits in Louisiana and California. The claims accuse the company of inadequately assessing the risk of its operations and responding poorly to the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers.
"This should be a wake-up call for those in the oil industry," DiNapoli, the fund's sole trustee, said in an interview. "There needs to be much more serious attention to risk and being able to respond when a disaster happens."
New York's $133 billion pension fund, which provides benefits to a million active and retired state and local government employees, owned 19 million shares of BP stock on the London stock exchange, worth about $186 million on the day of the explosion.
Since then, the worth of the state's BP portfolio has plummeted by about $110 million - the combined effect of a 47 percent decline in the stock price and the fund's sale of 4 million shares at lowered value. The stock was once worth $9.71 per share and is now at about $4.98.
Ed Fallone, an associate law professor at Marquette University, said pension funds have been involved in fewer shareholder lawsuits in the past few years because "they haven't been paying off as much as hoped." Still, Fallone said New York's pension fund could recoup some money if the suit can survive the early rounds of court.
"If it doesn't get kicked out immediately, then they'll have some leverage to try and get a settlement," said Fallone, who has worked on pension fund shareholder lawsuits.
Countrywide, the mortgage firm, settled for more than $600 million with New York's pension and other shareholder plaintiffs this year.
As New York waits for the courts to sort out the lawsuits, Long Island officials said they worried their own pension costs would rise again, even after Nassau and Suffolk recently learned their contributions would jump more than 45 percent in 2011 for an estimated $90 million in additional costs. School districts would see an added $100 million in costs.
"It's going to have very serious consequences for local governments if we have to make up for those losses," said Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos. He said the state should have had a "stop-loss" mechanism on the investments, causing them to be sold when they dipped below a certain price.
DiNapoli said it was too soon to tell if the losses would affect local contributions in 2012, as that decision would come on March 31, 2011. The state was still tallying exactly how much of its BP investment was lost.
"We know in the short-term, it will have no impact," DiNapoli said. "What it will mean next year, we'll have to see."
A BP spokesman said the company does not comment on litigation. BP suspended dividends this year, but has said it's committed to delivering long-term value to shareholders.
New York is one 42 state pension systems that have lost a total of more than $1.4 billion in BP investments since the rig explosion, according to an analysis by Bloomberg News.
New York's investment in BP represented about 1.5 percent of its $13-billion portfolio of foreign holdings. Those investments are managed by eight outside firms.
DiNapoli spokesman Robert Whalen wouldn't say if the BP investments had stop-loss mechanisms, but said the fund was set up for long-term returns, not short-term gains.