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Why a public servant you’ve never heard of is my hero [Commentary]

My favorite public servant is retired now, but I’m hoping the American public, the retirement savings industry and the Trump administration won’t let her down.

Gallup has been asking Americans since 1946 to name the individual they most admire and the top vote-getter usually is a political figure like George H.W. Bush or Barack Obama. My hero is Phyllis Borzi, and while never an elected politician, her accomplishments are having an outsized impact on the retirement plans of regular Americans.

Before retiring herself early this year, Borzi spent eight years in the Obama administration as the Department of Labor’s assistant secretary for employee benefits security. That long title put her in charge of the Employee Benefits Security Administration and made her the architect of a new federal regulation that requires financial investment advisers to put their clients’ best interests ahead of their own.

The regulation, now partially in effect, is designed to prevent the conflicts of interest that arise when investment advisors recommend mutual funds that pay them the highest commissions.

Determined and tough-minded Borzi is generally recognized as the driving force behind the fiduciary standard, but those of us who have worked with her know she’s done so much more. Her path to her signature accomplishment followed a winding road that taught Borzi the U.S. financial system was not working for all Americans.

Born into a close-knit Italian family in New York, she started her professional life as a high school English teacher before deciding to go to law school. While earning her law degree in the 1970s, she got a part-time job at a consulting firm helping clients understand a new law known as ERISA, or the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which set standards for private-sector pension plans.

Borzi then became a congressional staffer in 1979, working on employee benefits, and drafted a large piece of COBRA, the 1985 law that guarantees health benefits at some cost to workers after leaving a job. She worked as a research professor for 16 years at the George Washington University Medical Center’s School of Public Health and Health Services.

When she arrived at the Labor Department in 2009, Borzi set her sights on correcting a fundamental injustice embedded in the original ERISA, allowing retirement advisors to recommend “suitable” investments that might not be in the client’s best interest.

Borzi did all the right research. She wrote a draft rule, but it garnered almost no support. Indeed, the advisory industry went into attack mode and despite Borzi’s powerful testimony before Congress, the Labor Department pulled the proposal back in 2011.

The retirement advisory industry then put extraordinary pressure on the administration to fire Borzi, but President Obama refused to do so. I had the pleasure of meeting her a few months later in October 2011. She had heard we were launching an advisory firm to provide Americans with low-cost investment options while embracing the “best interest” fiduciary standard.

In that meeting, Borzi made clear she might have had to retreat on the first draft rule, but had no intention of surrendering. Borzi’s long journey to getting the fiduciary rule promulgated was extraordinary. It took multiple years. A new version of the rule was proposed in 2015 with the political backing of President Obama and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, but a lengthy and complicated public comment period delayed action until last year. The final version of the rule was issued in April 2016 and part of it became effective this past June 9. Full implementation, including enforcement, was scheduled for Jan. 1, 2018, but now is in doubt.

The Trump administration has just proposed delaying full implementation until July 1, 2019, to allow a “reassessment.” Republicans in Congress have introduced legislation to kill the new standard in its entirety. The new chairman of the Securities & Exchange Commission has suggested the Labor Department needs to work with his agency to devise the proper approach.

Phyllis Borzi already has identified the proper approach. It’s not difficult to understand and it protects the retirement futures of mainstream Americans: financial advisors should do what’s best for their clients. And that’s why Phyllis Borzi is my hero.

Scott Puritz is a managing director at Rebalance IRA and a member of the firm’s Investment Committee. He holds an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School and is a nationally recognized retirement investing expert.

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