Moritz College of Law The Ohio State University
This Month @ Moritz

Thomas Emswiler '82: Securing the Future for Federal Employees

Tom and Susan
Tom and his wife Susan

As a nonpolitical entity, Tom Emswiler's '82 agency does not take sides in the Social Security reform debate, but having its employees sharing the facts of the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) is no problem - in fact, it's Tom's pleasure. "It is like a 401(k) plan," he says. "Employees opt to defer pre-tax dollars into one of five funds, including funds that track the Standard & Poor's 500 and the Wilshire 4,500 indexes."

The staff of less than 100 handles 3.5 million investors, $150 billion in assets and $1.4 billion in contributions a month. "We're small and efficient," Tom says, adding that " the program only costs six basis points, compared to the typical 50 to 150 basis points a privately managed fund would charge."

The plan has three types of investors:

  • Pre-1984 employees, who can put up to 10 percent into the plan, but get no match since they retain their pre-TSP retirement plan.
  • Post-1986 employees, who are eligible for up to a 4 percent match and a one percent automatic contribution.
  • Uniformed services employees, who have the same benefits as the pre-1984 employees, but only have been eligible for the program since 2001.

Tom says the participation rates for those groups are 70 percent, 86 percent and 20 percent respectively. "I think the number of uniformed service participation will go up. Officers and NCO's are the largest group getting into it now. Once they get a history with it, they'll tell younger troops what a good deal it is."

As legal advisor, on any given day, Tom could be discussing any number of issues from fiduciary responsibility to the tax code to privacy issues to personnel law, a breadth of practice he enjoys. "There is always something new. It is very mission-oriented, like the Army. We're interested in doing the right thing."

A 20-year Army veteran, Tom does not hide his enthusiasm for the program. In his previous job with the Armed Forces Tax Council, he drafted legislation to allow the military into the plan.

"For a long time, some in the government said the military already had a retirement plan in place. They didn't see the need for it... It is a great plan. I wish it had been available when I was a young lieutenant, but I'm glad it is available for all the new uniformed personnel."

Thomas EmswilerThe son of a World War II pilot, Tom says he always held a favorable view of the military, but did not decide to go that route until his second year in law school when he interned with the Judge Advocate General's office. "It has taken me to a lot of interesting places, and provided a lot of interesting stories," he says.

One of the most rewarding but difficult experiences was working in the Pentagon Family Assistance Center, formed after Sept. 11, to aid families who lost loved ones in the attacks. The center opened Sept.12 and Tom helped set up the legal support staff. "It was really hard, but rewarding. You'd hear people's stories and see their loss. At the end of the day, you'd go home and the tears would just flow."

His other accomplishments include writing legislation making military wills uniform for all jurisdictions and allowing family members of military personnel to provide volunteer help in military legal offices. He also drafted several tax proposals for members of the armed forces that were enacted by Congress.

As for his career-long interest in tax law, he credits that to his OSU days. "I always had a vague notion that I'd get into international law," he says. "I took a liking to taxation. Professor Mike Rose was always accessible and he made tax law interesting."

Born and raised in Columbus, Tom attended Miami University before finishing his undergraduate work at OSU with his wife Susan, also an OSU graduate. They have two children: Tanya, a current OSU student, and Philip, an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, who is currently considering law schools.