A former top official at America's third-largest pension fund and two broker-dealers were charged Wednesday in what a federal prosecutor described as a classic bribery scheme that steered $2.9 billion ($US2b) in trades in exchange for drugs, prostitutes, vacations and US Open tennis tickets.

"The hard-earned pension savings of New Yorkers should never serve as a vehicle for corrupt, personal enrichment," Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement, calling the alleged pay-for-play arrangement a "classic, quid-pro- quo bribery scheme."

Navnoor Kang, the ex-head of the $266b ($US184 billion) New York State Common Retirement Fund's fixed income trades, received more than $144,800 ($US100,000) worth of bribes in the form of trips, gifts, luxury hotel stays and other pay-offs from broker-dealers Deborah Kelley and Gregg Schonhorn, prosecutors said.

Kang, 38, was arrested in Portland, Oregon, on securities fraud, honest service wire fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges.

Advertisement

His lawyer, Lauren DeSantis-Then, said her client denies all the charges. "Mr. Kang is not guilty and we look forward to our day in court," she said. Kelley, 58, of Piedmont, California, was expected to surrender, authorities said.

Her lawyer didn't immediately return a request for comment. Schonhorn, 45, of Short Hills, New Jersey, has pleaded guilty and is co-operating with federal authorities, court papers show. His lawyer didn't immediately return a request for comment.

Regulators found that Kang steered about $2.9b ($US2b) in fixed-income trades to firms represented by Kelley and Schonhorn beginning in early 2014, resulting in millions of dollars in commissions, of which the two earned between 35 and 40 per cent, according to an indictment.

In that time, securities investigators found that the firms' fixed-income business surged, with one of them increasing its domestic bond transactions from zero at the end of fiscal year 2013 to $3.43b ($US2.37b) at the end of fiscal year 2016, making it one of the top broker dealers doing state pension fund business, according to the complaint.

Prosecutors said that in exchange, Kang received a $14,400 ($US10,000) all-expenses-paid trip to Montreal, Canada; a ski trip to Park City, Utah; tickets to a Paul McCartney concert in New Orleans; a $25,200 ($US17,420) Panerai wristwatch; dinners at upscale restaurants; nights out at strip clubs; prostitutes; and cocaine.

The state's pension fund has been the source of scandal before. In 2010, a state comptroller pleaded guilty to charges he steered pension funds to a campaign contributor. Further investigations revealed investors' widespread use of so-called placement agents to access pension funds, an arrangement some regulators have likened to pay-to-play.

Kang had been fired in 2012 by a private investment firm for accepting gifts from Schonhorn in exchange for steering fixed-income business, but he lied about his termination when he was hired by the state fund, according to the complaint.

Asked whether state officials properly investigated Kang before hiring him, a spokesman for the comptroller's office said only that "background checks are a routine part of the hiring process."

Advertisement