COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — The executive director of Ohio’s $90 billion teacher pension fund has been suspended following allegations of sexual harassment, verbal abuse and threats of violence against staff.
The State Teachers Retirement System board voted to place Director Bill Neville on administrative leave at a Friday meeting, citing an anonymous letter from STRS staff alleging a pattern of harassment since the board appointed him in 2020. Staff also called for an investigation into Neville’s conduct, which the board chair later said has started and is being conducted by an outside party.
On Thursday night, NBC4 obtained the anonymous letter, which was also sent to the Ohio Ethics Commission and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. The board made the move in consultation with the Attorney General’s office, Chair Dale Price said at the meeting.
The letter alleges that Neville verbally abused staff and had violent outbursts on a “regular basis,” at some points throwing furniture and office materials when he became upset. Staff also claimed Neville threatened his direct employees with physical violence.
“It does not take much to trigger an upsurge and staff truly fear for their physical and emotional safety when Director Neville behaves in this way,” the letter reads.
Neville has also made sexual comments about his previous relationships and people’s physical appearances, including female staff members, the letter claims. The letter said Neville “favors men he likes” when making decisions and is “degrading towards women.”
Since July, the letter continued, Neville allegedly threatened to retaliate against staff whose family members testified against him in STRS board meetings. Staff members are seeking employment elsewhere due to Neville’s conduct, the letter claimed.
The staff members cited fear of physical violence should they have come forward publicly.
“Director Neville is not equipped to lead this organization and should receive whatever assistance he needs as determined by an investigation,” the letter reads. “He does not have the best interest of the members at the forefront of his decision making.”
The STRS is one of the largest teacher pension funds in the country with 530,000 active, inactive and retired public educators. Members have blamed Neville for apparent failures of the pension fund to provide for retirees, including the elimination of automatic cost of living increases while investment staff has received hefty bonuses.
In an interview, Robin Rayfield, executive director of the Ohio Retired Teachers Association, said he was not aware of allegations beforehand but was not necessarily surprised.
“There has been minimal, zero essential oversight in the years at STRS,” Rayfield said.
“People get on the board, and they just do whatever the executive director requests and that sets up — you know, any person without any oversight is subject to making bad decisions and exhibiting bad behavior.”
Before assuming the role as director, Neville was hired in 2004 to be the fund’s chief counsel — responsible for preventing the very behavior he is now accused of. He has been at the center of controversy regarding the pension fund long before the allegations against him came to light.
In February, the board rejected a motion to declare confidence in Neville, with one board member saying the fund needed a leadership change. Before that, an audit of the fund commissioned by retirees found “serious deficiencies” in STRS’s finances. A review by the state auditor last December found no evidence of illegal conduct but called on the fund to increase transparency.
In May, Gov. Mike DeWine replaced a progressive board member who would have tipped the balance of the board toward those favoring reform. That would-be member’s dismissal is being challenged in court. Weeks before, the board mulled over a 30% bonus for investment staff, a move highly criticized by teachers who pointed to the fund’s $5.3 billion in losses the year before.
Multiple STRS members told NBC4 they are relieved that Neville has been suspended, and they hope it signals a new day for the pension fund. Rayfield echoed those sentiments.
“What’s really important is that STRS needs to be reformed, and Bill Neville cannot do that,” he said. “It is his program, as it is currently organized, and he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong. And of course we stand in direct opposition to that — we think darn near everything is wrong.”
Lynn Hoover, deputy executive director of finance and CFO of the STRS, will serve as interim director. In a statement, chair Price said the fund is “cooperating fully” with investigators and that daily operations of the fund should continue uninterrupted.
“STRS Ohio will continue its unwavering focus on Ohio’s public educators and their families to protect their financial security,” Price said. “In her role as acting Executive Director, Ms. Hoover will ensure the seamless continuation of services and operations provided by the exceptional team at STRS Ohio and will protect the stability and integrity of the organization on behalf of all constituents and personnel.”
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said in a statement Friday afternoon that he has appointed special counsel to investigate the claims against Neville.
“Any allegation of misconduct of this nature is troubling,” Yost said. “Half a million teachers and retirees rely upon the fiducial trust of STRS, which compounds my concern.”
STRS’s communications director declined an interview, said Price will be the “sole spokesperson” for the pension fund on the allegations against Neville, and that Price would not comment further.