COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — After an oversight committee failed to conduct an audit of Ohio’s retirement fund for teachers for 16 years, a group of retirees decided to take matters into their own hands.

Amid accusations of financial mismanagement and anger over the State Teachers Retirement System’s elimination of a “guaranteed” annual 3 percent cost-of-living allowance, the Ohio Retired Teachers Association pooled its money together to pay for a forensic audit of the $98 billion pension fund.

Dean Dennis, a member of the Ohio Retired Teachers Association who founded a “watchdog” website committed to tracking STRS, said retirees have every right to be angry.

“I mean, their hair’s on fire, to be honest,” he said.

Tasked with leading the investigation into STRS was Ed Siedle, a pensions forensic auditing expert with a bestseller titled “Who Stole My Pension?” He said he identified “serious deficiencies” in the pension fund’s finances.

Below: Robert McFee’s full conversation with NBC4’s Colleen Marshall.

“The pension money was being squandered, that there were all kinds of investments that raised serious questions, and that the fees that the pension was paying were extremely high,” he said.

Wade Steen, an auditor who sits on the STRS board, corroborated Siedle’s findings and said he’s not sure where the pension fund’s money is going — or why the market averaged a 15 percent rate of return for the past decade, but the STRS investment team averaged only 6 percent.

If the STRS continues to fail to “get the job done,” Steen said changes must be made, comparing it to Ohio State’s football team.

“I think we saw some coaches that didn’t get the job done, and [coach] Ryan Day and Ohio State made changes there — it might be time to make some changes here,” Steen said.

As about 150,000 retired teachers in Ohio demand answers over the absence of a COLA, Seidle said staff members at STRS are making six-figure salaries.

“STRS has an investment staff that is lavishly compensated with bonuses far above what the private sector in Columbus, or anywhere in Ohio, would pay,” he said.

Of the top ten highest-paid employees in Ohio’s five public pension systems, eight work for STRS, according to the Ohio Checkbook.

In 2020, the top-earning employee at STRS – a regional director – made a $294,550 salary and a bonus that doubled his salary for a total compensation of $587,554. The average Ohio teacher’s salary is $61,406.

However, STRS Board Chair Robert McFee, who teaches in Cleveland, said wages for the pension fund’s professional investors are warranted and must be competitive.

“Our investment staff is composed of incredible, hardworking, dedicated professionals,” he said. “And we at STRS do a compensation study every two years to make sure that they are paid adequately for their service.”

Through the pension fund’s internal asset investment, McFee said STRS has saved Ohio teachers $117 million. The fund — which currently sits at an 87% funding ratio — was at a 48% risk of falling below a 50% funding threshold just five years ago, McFee said. Now, that risk has been reduced to 16%.

“We outperform 90 percent of the public pension funds in the country,” he said. “We are one of the top performing public pension funds, so I am not sure which critics are saying we underperform – but I don’t believe that’s an accurate description.”

Wright State economics professor Rudy Fichtenbaum, who sits on the STRS board, is questioning the pension fund’s investments – some of which he said are outsourced to Wall Street.

“Particularly for what I consider to be very risky investments, basically just these black box investments in private equity. Those are illiquid investments, and they are very risky,” Fichtenbaum said.

Retired and active teachers alike have taken their frustrations to two Facebook groups, pushing 30,000 members strong, to demand the restoration of a COLA that was promised to them.

Dennis is one of them, and he said STRS board members have breached their fiduciary responsibilities to retired teachers, placating STRS staff rather than serving Ohio’s teachers.

“I didn’t plan on this. I worked 35 years, my wife worked 35 years,” he said. “We did everything right with our money, and now it has just been stolen from us.”