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Published: Friday, 4/28/2006

BWC investments to stay grounded in low-risk bonds


COLUMBUS - The board that oversees Ohio's scandal-scarred insurance program for on-the-job injuries will continue to invest only in bonds for at least a month, a spokesman said yesterday.

The Workers' Compensation Oversight Commission voted yesterday to stay with investment bonds until the end of May, when a draft of an investment risk study by an outside group is due, Bureau of Workers' Compensation spokesman Nancy Smeltzer said.

The study will assess the safest investments for the bureau's $14 billion investment portfolio, Ms. Smeltzer said.

The bureau is recovering from a scandal stemming from risky investments that reached $300 million in losses, including up to $13 million in a rare-coin investment.

Coin dealer and Republican fund-raiser Tom Noe, who handled $50 million in bureau investments, pleaded not guilty to state charges alleging he stole from the coin investment.

He also has pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he illegally funneled $45,000 to President Bush's re-election campaign.

The scandal also led to Gov. Bob Taft's historic no-contest plea on ethics charges.

The agency took a step toward a new financial approach in November by transferring almost all of its portfolio to fixed-income funds, or less risky funds such as those investing in bonds that pay a specific interest rate.

BWC Administrator William Mabe, however, said last month that the agency will have to raise premiums on employers if the bureau's giant insurance fund remains invested in the ultrasafe bond market, where it is making minimal interest.

Mr. Mabe estimated the passive fixed-income strategy will yield a 5 percent annual return and reduce yearly transaction costs by $30 million. He said the bureau could return to buying stocks if it builds up its $1.1 billion surplus.

Jim McLean, who was fired as the agency's chief investment officer three months ago, earlier said the supposedly cautious plan was misguided.

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