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WASHINGTON-Martin Slate, executive director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., whose drive, focus and negotiating skills are credited with the enactment of legislation that put the PBGC on a sound financial footing, died last week in his home of a heart attack. He was 51.
John Seal, PBGC deputy executive director, who is responsible for the agency's internal management support services, was named acting executive director.
President Clinton described Mr. Slate as the "quintessential public servant" who spent his entire career "working to make sure our laws were fair and applied fairly." The president and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton were longtime friends of the executive director.
Assistant Secretary of Labor Olena Berg, who heads the department's office of Pension and Welfare Benefits Plan Administration, described Mr. Slate as a "phenomenal man. He was one of the smartest persons I ever met and one with the biggest heart. He was a wonderful friend and colleague."
Those remembering Mr. Slate recalled both his drive and focus.
"What made him unique was an extraordinary energy level and an intensity on issues that most people would find boring," said Dallas Salisbury, president of the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, who knew Mr. Slate for about 20 years.
Mr. Slate came to the PBGC with a sterling academic and professional background. He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard University and held a law degree from Yale University, where he was a classmate of Hillary Rodham. He worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for 12 years, directing enforcement activities of 20 field offices.
In 1986, he was named director of the Employee Plans Division of the Internal Revenue Service. There he headed a 180-member staff and was involved in a wide variety of pension issues, including the drafting of pension non-discrimination rules.
Through his work at the IRS, Mr. Slate became well-known in the pension industry. But it was his role as PBGC executive director, a post to which he was named in 1993 by Labor Secretary Robert Reich, another longtime friend, that he made his mark.
Mr. Slate joined the PBGC at a time when many public officials were warning that its financial condition could make it an eventual candidate for a taxpayer-subsidized bailout along the lines of the savings and loan industry bailout in the 1980s. The agency then was laboring under a $2.4 billion deficit, which was expected to grow. Mr. Slate, upon taking over as PBGC chief, immediately cooled the rhetoric. He described the agency's financial situation as serious and real, but manageable.
After Secretary Reich appointed him chairman of an administration task force charged with examining the PBGC's financial problems and drafting legislation to ease those problems, Mr. Slate quickly reached out to the business community for its input.
Even before reform legislation was drafted, "he asked us to come in so we could be part of the process from the very beginning," recalled Lynn Dudley, director of retirement policy at the Assn. of Private Pension and Welfare Plans in Washington.
Mr. Slate won the respect of the business community not only for his knowledge of pension issues, but also for his honesty and accessibility.
"He was an individual of the highest integrity. His word always was good, and he always was available," said Mark Ugoretz, president of the ERISA Industry Committee in Washington.
During Mr. Slate's first two years at the PBGC, the overwhelming amount of his time and effort was concentrated on getting legislation passed to close many of the loopholes in federal law that had allowed companies to seriously underfund their pension plans, exposing the PBGC to massive liabilities when those companies collapsed.
"He really focused on getting that done," said Carol Conner Flowe, then the PBGC's general counsel and now a partner with Arent, Fox, Kitner, Plotkin & Kahn in Washington.
"There was a consistency of focus. He had an almost missionary zeal to have the program reformed. There was a bulldog-like tenacity to get legislation passed," Mr. Salisbury said.
But observers recalled that Mr. Slate was far more than tenacious. He also was a shrewd legislative tactician. The PBGC reform legislation was drafted in such a way that it raised funds for the federal government.
That made it perfect for inclusion in a broader measure-the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade-that needed revenue-raising provisions to offset other provisions that lost revenues.
During this time, Mr. Slate and his staff negotiated with business groups to meet their objections that the measure was too harsh.
"He had obvious skills as a legislative strategist. He understood the need of when and where to make compromises," recalled Ms. Flowe.
"He got people to the table. The legislation would not have passed without him. He was its architect, and he shepherded it through," said the Labor Department's Ms. Berg.
Passed in 1994, the Retirement Protection Act was Mr. Slate's crowning achievement. By speeding up and improving pension funding, the law has significantly reduced the PBGC's exposure to big losses when companies go out of business and terminate their pension plans.
Through the enactment of the legislation, the pension insurance system is much sounder, said James Lockhart, PBGC executive director during the Bush administration and now a managing director with Greenwich, Conn.-based NetRisk Inc., a provider of risk management services to financial institutions.
In fact, today, the PBGC has a surplus, though that is due as much to a booming economy and a robust stock market as it is to the law.
But, unquestionably, over the long haul, the 1994 law will lead to a permanent overall improvement in pension plan funding and smaller PBGC losses when pension plans terminate.
"His legacy will be a stronger defined benefit plan system," said Mr. Ugoretz of the ERISA Industry Committee.
PBGC officials say there will be no disruption in services or sudden change in policies in the aftermath of his death.
"He laid out a good strategic plan for the agency, and we intend to continue to follow it," said Mr. Seal, the acting executive director.
Mr. Slate is survived by his wife, Dr. Caroline Poplin of Bethesda, Md.
Contributions in his memory can be sent to the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, 6101 Montrose Road, Suite 200, Rockville, Md. 20852.