Statement by Occupation Free Portland in Opposition to the Investment Policy Proposed by the Portland City Treasurer
March 29, 2017
Occupation-Free Portland, a coalition of religious, social justice, and peace organizations, today released the following statement in response to a proposal from Portland’s City Treasurer that eliminates the city’s Socially Responsible Investments (SRI) policy. The proposal also eliminates the citizen advisory committee established to make recommendations under the SRI policy. In its place, the City Treasurer proposes to place Portland’s investments in corporate securities entirely in the hands of a Wall Street firm known as MSCI. The statement reads as follows:
We recognize the difficulty that the City Council had in December 2016 in agreeing unanimously on the recommendations of the city’s SRI Committee as to what corporations should be on the Do-Not-Buy list, particularly with regard to Wells Fargo and Caterpillar.
Occupation-Free Portland would like to point out, however, that the Council had previously agreed unanimously to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) because of its violations of the rights of indigenous people, to recognize the need to curb fossil fuel extraction, and to declare Portland a Sanctuary City. OFP commends the City Council for these positions taken in support of the environment and human rights.
The Council should now be able to see its way to act in accord with these principled positions given that Wells Fargo financed DAPL and Caterpillar was a major contractor in the building of it. Wells Fargo finances the fossil fuel industry and Caterpillar’s Oil and Gas Division and its Pipeline Division are key players in fossil fuel extraction. Wells Fargo also finances the private prison corporations that manage or own immigrant detention facilities, and Caterpillar is President Trump’s favored contractor for building the anti-immigrant wall on our border with Mexico.
It’s time for the City Council to act on its principles by not investing in corporations that are engaged in the very practices it condemns.
However, the main purpose of this statement is to address the new proposal on investment decisions being offered by the City Treasurer. We wish to explain why this is a bad policy and why the council should anticipate widespread community resistance to it. The only limit on the city’s investments in the Treasurer’s proposal would be to screen out corporations having less than a BBB environmental-social-governance (ESG) rating as provided by the evaluation corporation MSCI-ESG. But MSCI-ESG ratings are proprietary, which means Portland taxpayers would have no idea what goes into the rating decisions. The public will have no knowledge of the factors MSCI-ESG took into account and the factors that it simply ignored. Most importantly, neither the people of Portland nor the City Council itself will have any say in how the tax money is invested. Thus, the proposed investment policy is completely lacking in both transparency and public input.
Furthermore, we have been advised that this proposal —which essentially delegates the City’s investment authority to a Wall Street-based investment company, without any opportunity for further analysis by the Council ––may well be illegal since it appears to violate the “delegation of powers theory” under the Oregon state constitution. Governmental authority must be exercised by a governmental entity; it may not be delegated to a standard-setting private agency.
The City’s ceding of its decision-making authority to MSCI-ESG to determine whether a corporate security investment is permitted additionally may be in violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of Oregon’s Public Meetings law. The City Treasurer is proposing that the City rely solely on reports that are proprietary and confidential, with no opportunity for citizens to review and respond to such reports, therefore, constituting a “meeting” that is not open to the public.
Given these concerns, we would like to know if this proposal has been vetted by the City Attorney, and if so, what the City Attorney’s findings were.
The main purpose of MSCI-ESG is to assess investment risk, not to explore whether corporations are engaged in human rights transgressions, unfair labor practices, corrupt corporate practices, or damaging environmental projects. What is now a relatively transparent process would become opaque to public scrutiny. It would completely negate the democratic process enabled by the previously adopted Socially Responsible Investments policy. Under the Treasurer’s proposal, there would be no citizen-based Socially Responsible Investments Committee, and there would be no democratic way for community groups to provide input to the city’s investment decisions. This is not acceptable in a City that champions progressive values.
From publicly available MSCI-ESG reports, we know that this rating agency gives 0% weight to issues of corporate ethics and fraud. This is especially alarming when you consider that both Caterpillar and Wells Fargo have been caught red-handed in fraud. Wells Fargo was found to have defrauded two million customers with phony customer accounts. Caterpillar’s headquarters was recently raided by four federal agencies after a government-commissioned report concluded the company was guilty of accounting fraud in avoiding the payment of $2.7 billion in taxes.
We are also disturbed that MSCI-ESG appears to give little weight to human rights considerations in its evaluation of corporate behavior. Human rights are of special concern to the people of Portland. Citizen groups in Portland are deeply concerned about the rights of people of color, immigrant rights, indigenous people’s rights, LGBT rights, the rights of Palestinians, and the human rights of all groups.
If the Treasurer’s proposed policy had been in place some years ago, then it is likely that the City Council would not have been able to put the Carbon Tracker 200 corporations and perhaps Wal-mart on the Do-Not-Buy List. We do not have access to current MSCI ratings of corporations, but we know that five years ago fossil fuel corporations such as Chevron and Exxon had ratings that were much higher than BBB. We know nothing about Wal-mart’s ratings.
The only reason the SRI policy has appeared contentious is because Wells Fargo lobbyists have opposed placing Wells Fargo on the Do-Not-Buy list and because some supporters of the Israeli government have opposed placing Caterpillar on the list. One of the Israeli government supporters conceded at a November 2016 City Council hearing that the objection to Caterpillar was raised only because Caterpillar does business with the Israeli army and has been the target for many years of campaigns by activists for Palestinian human rights. Otherwise, there would have been no objection to placing this corporation on the Do-Not-Buy list for violating six of the seven criteria under the SRI policy, including violations of the indigenous rights of the Sioux nation at Standing Rock, the Xinca people in Guatemala, and the Lenca people in Honduras. In effect, they asked that an exception be made for violations of Palestinian human rights and that violations of Palestinian human rights be allowed. But as you well know, the very concept of universal human rights is threatened when exceptions are made for certain ethnic or racial groups.
We recognize that the City Council may wish to avoid controversy by adopting the
Treasurer’s proposed policy which has the appearance of objectivity. But as we have pointed out such objectivity is only apparent. Controversy over the city’s investment decisions will not disappear under such a policy.
Occupation-Free Portland calls on the City Council to ensure transparency and citizen participation in its investment decisions and to respect the human rights of all people without exception. We commend the City Council’s decision in 2015 to initiate an SRI policy that has become a model for other cities to follow around the country. We join together with our allies who work for the rights of immigrants, for the rights of indigenous people, for climate justice and in opposition to private prisons in asking the City Council to reinstate the SRI policy and the SRIC and to add Wells Fargo, Caterpillar, Nestle, and Amazon to the Do-Not-Buy list.
Our proposed draft resolution can be found here: