Politicians suddenly recall how strongly they feel about genocide in Darfur

The large advertisement in Sunday's Review-Journal seemed to say it all: "You Would Never Hurt A Child ... Make Sure Your Retirement Savings Doesn't Either."

The black-and-white photograph of the young Sudanese girl conjured images that surely touched the hearts of any reader who possessed even the most general knowledge of the ongoing genocide in Sudan's Darfur region. It's estimated that the Sudanese government has allowed or sanctioned the killing of more than 400,000 of its own people.

"We must ensure state dollars invested here are not supporting rape, torture, and murder over there," the ad sponsored by the Sudan Divestment Task Force and the Save Darfur Coalition read.

On its face, the issue is simple. Basic morality dictates Nevada's Public Employees Retirement System should immediately distance itself from any company doing business in Sudan. At the Legislature, the Horsford/Townsend Divestment Amendment, based on the Sudan Divestment Task Force model, will create a state law that proposes changes in the PERS investment portfolio.

Elected officials from throughout the political spectrum find this high-profile issue easy to support. The ad included a partial list of backers that includes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Congressman Jon Porter and Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, members of the state Senate and Assembly, political titans Sig Rogich and Billy Vassiliadis, along with campaign players such as Pete Ernaut, Robert Uithoven, Chuck Muth, and Jim and Dani Denton.

As I write this, other sensitive politicians are suddenly remembering how strongly they feel about the genocide in Darfur in time for the publication of future advertisements. This may be the easiest endorsement of their careers.

It's the right thing to do. And it's simple.

Or is it?

Not at all, PERS Executive Officer Dana Bilyeu said. She differs with the amendment's co-sponsors, state Sens. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, and Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas. As she sees it, any thought of divesting from Sudan-connected companies not mandated by a higher authority -- the federal government, she means -- would very likely violate PERS's fiduciary duty to its members. She said PERS isn't considering participating in the Darfur-targeted divestment movement.

If that sounds coldhearted, and it does from where I sit, she doesn't mean it to. More than 400,000 Sudanese might have been slaughtered, and more than 2 million displaced from their homes, but the retirement system has valuable investments with companies such as French oil services company Schlumberger, which is part of the Standard & Poor's index. (Bilyeu reminds skeptics that many 401(k) portfolios include similar investments.)

The divestment policy of the Sudan Divestment Task Force, on which a number of successful amendments in other states are based, is a thoughtful, seemingly comprehensive document that defines its terms and shows a reasoned approach to the complex issue. Will Nevada's PERS officials take any of it to heart?

What heart? (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

"It's actually a much more complicated issue than the advertisement, I think, would reveal," Bilyeu said. She noted PERS also has refrained from divesting from tobacco companies, despite the entreaties of the American Cancer Society, and from Nestle, despite concerns over its historical ties to Nazi spoils and the use of forced labor during World War II.

"That does not mean that we do not think that, of course, what's going on in Darfur is terrible," Bilyeu said. "That's not the issue for us."

She said that a PERS divestment in Schlumberger, one of the targeted companies, just two years ago would have cost the system $10 million. Divestment five years ago would have trimmed the trust by $50 million.

"It's a very slippery slope when we are responsible for financing pensions for Nevada public workers," she said.

Although a number of states have passed divestment laws, the number of targeted companies varies widely from as few as eight to as many as 62, according to one source. Bilyeu said a comprehensive divestment strategy would carry far more weight coming from the federal government, which has produced a list of banned companies due to their ties to terrorist groups.

If the amendment passes, as it's sure to, PERS will be compelled to take a look at it.

Until then, Darfur-connected companies are as good as bloody gold in the trust fund's portfolio.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0295.