In December, Berko backtracked. In a column headlined, “Some Lessons on Teachers’ Retirement Fund,” he published a letter from a reader who wrote that Berko was “very wrong” about the commission issue. Berko then quoted Brian Browdie, TIAA’s vice president of corporate communications, who said that TIAA makes no contributions to unions.
Browdie tells us that it took some wrangling to get Creators’ predecessor, Copley, to even issue the correction, and when it did, only five of fifteen papers that originally published the column also published the correction. (Creators declined to provide its own list of papers that published either the column or the correction, but says “Taking Stock” runs in more than fifty papers.)
In the December correction, Berko explained that he had gotten the bad information from two former employees, “one of whom I suspect may not be a gruntled employee.”
But he also added:
But certainly some [TIAA-CREF] employees do [make contributions], though not in the name of TIAA-CREF.
In a June column headlined “Teachers Fund Far from Head of the Class,” Berko repeated one of his November errors, calling TIAA-CREF a “for-profit” company, and made a new one:
only five of CREF’s mutual funds have double-digit returns, which occurred in an exploding market between 2002 and 2006.
Actually, the number was twelve.
In July, Berko, for the third time, erroneously called TIAA-CREF “for-profit” and said it sells “high-commission, high-cost” products.
He also repeated, wrongly, that the firm had just five mutual funds with double-digit investment returns over the last five years.
By this point, TIAA-CREF had repeatedly pointed out the errors, and posted refutations on its Web site.
On August 13, Berko attempted to make amends with a column headlined “Mea Culpa: Getting It Right About TIAA-CREF.” He quoted TIAA-CREF defending its investment returns with numbers that indicate 63 percent of its funds and annuities outperformed the Morningstar median returns over three- and five-year periods.
He also let readers know that it was in fact twelve TIAA-CREF mutual funds that produced double-digit returns, not five.
Still, Berko dismissed the importance of an error he made three times, that of the difference between a company that distributes profits to shareholders and one that gives them back to clients:
OK, I guess that’s why some folks say “tomato” while others say “toe-mahto!
Actually, the distinction is crucial. But regardless, most of the papers that ran the original erroneous columns didn’t run the subsequent columns that corrected the errors, TIAA-CREF complains. Creators says papers choose which columns they run.
In an e-mail, Berko says he’s hard on TIAA-CREF because readers constantly complain to him about it. “During the past few years I have received numerous complaints from readers expressing exasperation, frustration and anger about how difficult it is for them to move their money from (TIAA-CREF) to another fiduciary.” He also says he’s heard from ex-salespeople at the company who say their advisers were told to make it as difficult as possible for investors to leave.
He also repeated the allegation that TIAA makes campaign contributions:
I do not personally have evidence of (TIAA-CREF) contributions to various school boards, etc. But I do have private anecdotal evidence from several ex-employees whom I have no reason to doubt. Ryan….we both know that a bundle of fifties (under the hat) is an appreciated gesture. This practice and the world’s oldest profession walk hand in hand down the corridors of Corporate America and in Congress. And both of us know there are some very imaginative ways to pass the hat.
Campaign contributions are public record and can be examined at any secretary of state’s office or local election board, so reliance on “private anecdotal evidence” as proof that they were made is, at best, bizarre.
We also have a bone to pick with Creators’ disclosure on Berko. On its Web site, it says Berko is a financial adviser “at a regional brokerage firm in Boca Raton, Fla.” Berko says he hasn’t worked as an adviser for two years and says Creators is updating his bio. (As of publication time, it still hadn’t been updated.)