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The death of private equity’s most notorious ‘placement agent’

January 16, 2015, 8:17 PM UTC
CA's Gov't Pension Fund To Report Loss Of One Quarter Of Its Holdings
SACRAMENTO, CA - JULY 21: A sign stands in front of California Public Employees' Retirement System building July 21, 2009 in Sacramento, California. CalPERS, the state's public employees retirement fund, reported a loss of 23.4%, its largest annual loss. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)
Photogaph by Max Whittaker—Getty Images

Alfred Villalobos is dead at the age of 71. It seems he shot himself inside of a Reno gun club, just one month before he was set to go on trial for federal fraud and corruption charges, related to his work in getting California’s largest state pension fund to invest with his private equity clients.

My sympathies, of course, go out to his family and friends. Villalobos’s attorney had suggested in recent court papers that his client was suffering from an unspecified medical condition that had left him “incoherent” and incapable of sitting through a trial.

But make no mistake: The human tragedy here does not absolve Villalobos of his alleged misdeeds. In fact, it arguably exacerbates them because California pensioners have been deprived of their right to know what was done in their name and with their money.

I first heard the name Al Villalobos seven years ago in a hotel bar, after receiving an anonymous request for a meeting. My source said that he was a former California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) board member who since had become a “placement agent” for private equity funds. He also said that Villalobos was a regular in Sacramento’s literal halls of power, often seen walking in and out of CalPERS headquarters and socializing with its executives. It was rotten and,when exposed, was “going to get very, very ugly.”

So I went home to research, and it soon became clear that Villalobos had an abnormally high batting average when it came to getting state investment contracts for his clients. In one case, he even secured a massive commitment after CalPERS investment staff had publicly recommended against it. No wonder he kept getting repeat business from well-known private equity firms, including industry heavyweights like Apollo Global Management (AGM).

Not too long after, the entire thing began to unravel in the public eye — one of several private equity kickback scandals to roil public pension funds throughout the country. Eventually, Villalobos was indicted on very narrow charges of forging documents on official CalPERS letterhead, in order to get reimbursed by some of his clients. Also indicted was former CalPERS CEO Fred Buenrostro, who last summer plead guilty and flipped on his onetime pal. Not only did Buenrostro admit to the forgeries, but he also claimed to have received $200,000 in cash from Villalobos — stuffed into shoe boxes and paper bags — in exchange for confidential CalPERS information and influence in directing CalPERS to invest in Villalobos’ clients.

But prosecutors no longer will not be able to question Villalobos, under oath, on Buenrostro’s claims. They will be unable to ask if other CalPERS officials were aware of the kickback schemes. Or if there was any knowledge on the part of Villalobos’s private equity clients. Hundreds of millions of dollars were involved here, and now the investigation will stop cold in Reno.

As my hotel bar source wrote in a brief email this week after news of the suicide: “Some serious stuff went to the grave here.”

I mourn the death of Alfred Villalobos. At the same time, I am disgusted by it.