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OppenheimerFunds Takes Heat For College Fund Losses

Just last month we discussed problems arising with a form of investment called the 529 Plan, which claimed to secure the costs of a student's future college tuition through a combination of savings and dividends. As it turns out, the floundering stock market has led to many of these plans coming up woefully short and leaving parents in the lurch as more and more students continue to reach college age. Now OppenheimerFunds (a subsidiary of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance) is under fire from attorney generals in five different states for its part in some of these massive savings-account losses.

Officials in Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon and Texas began last month to jointly explore whether OppenheimerFunds violated its fiduciary duty to investors in the so-called 529 plans, said Scott Burnham, a spokesman for Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. Investors lost $85 million last year in Illinois-sponsored accounts run by the firm, whose managers bought mortgage-linked securities before prices plunged along with the residential real estate market.

Mortgatge-linked securities are notoriously fickle, and OppenheimerFunds' managers' failed to let parents in on some complex investment plans before it was too late. According to their spokesperson, however, their actions were fair and justified.

Jeaneen Pisarra, a spokeswoman for New York-based OppenheimerFunds, declined to comment on the states' investigation or possible litigation.

"OppenheimerFunds maintains that it acted appropriately in managing the funds for which it serves as investment adviser," she said. "Unprecedented market volatility and lack of liquidity in the second half of 2008 led to poor performance of the Core Bond Fund."

Now that poor performance is reportedly "locked in," meaning that the event horizon has passed and the damage is too great to be easily recouped. State officials have yet to determine to what extent OppenheimerFunds is responsible for the losses, and how much money in total they may be responsible for. Nevertheless, a Seattle law firm is gearing up to engage in a group or class-action lawsuit against the investment company on behalf of the investors, now saddled with heavy college costs -- the costs they thought they'd done all the right things to protect against.

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