State Treasurer Janet Cowell says she is committed to serving the remainder of her term and would never have agreed to join two corporate boards if the State Ethics Commission hadn’t given her the go-ahead.
In her first interview since she joined the boards of two publicly traded companies and set off a conflict-of-interest controversy, Cowell said she remains comfortable with her decision.
“I certainly understand that there’s differences of opinion ... but I feel confident about the decisions I’ve made and I feel confident in my ability to be treasurer,” she said. “There’s important work left to do. I plan to do that.”
Despite the uproar that has ensued, Cowell said she doesn’t regret accepting the corporate board seats.
“I’m used to scrutiny,” she said. “This isn’t my first rodeo. It’s not easy. It’s not necessarily fun. (But) I can feel confident that there is no conflict.”
Critics have complained that the optics of a public official who is sole fiduciary of the state’s $86.57 billion pension fund serving on corporate boards are terrible, and that the possibilities for conflicts of interest are significant. Earlier this week the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which has frequently been at odds with Cowell, called for her to either step down as treasurer or resign from the corporate boards.
But Cowell, 47, a Democrat who isn’t seeking re-election to a third term in November, says those fears are misplaced.
She said none of the investment dollars she’s responsible for are invested in the companies whose boards she has joined: Morrisville e-commerce technology company ChannelAdvisor and James River Group Holdings, a specialty insurance company that is based in Bermuda and has a U.S. headquarters in Raleigh.
In addition, she said, her office has no regulatory role in either of those companies’ industries.
Cowell also stressed that she first consulted with the department’s internal and external legal counsel before requesting that the ethics commission issue a formal advisory opinion. Each step along the way, she said, she received a green light.
With regard to Wellington Management, an investment management firm that is entangled in both her public role as treasurer and her new private role, Cowell said she would recuse herself from any decisions involving the firm. Wellington manages more than $4 billion for the state pension plan and its 401(k) and 457 (deferred compensation plans) and also owns 6.8 percent of James River.
There is only “a remote possibility” that any decision involving Wellington Management will emerge during the remainder of her term, she added.
Cowell also has signed a pledge to recuse herself from any matters concerning ChannelAdvisor and James River “even if recusal for those matters may not be required by state law.” Although some have questioned whether Cowell, as sole fiduciary, can recuse herself, she insisted that’s not a problem.
“Even though I am a sole fiduciary,” she said, “in statute it shows that you can delegate if there is a decision that, for whatever reason, becomes difficult for that one person to make.”
Cowell said she never fielded an offer to join a corporate board until she announced in October that she wasn’t seeking re-election.
Cowell said she isn’t facing any personal financial issues that spurred her to accept the lucrative board posts, but each was “a time-limited opportunity” that she didn’t want to pass up.
“They are both companies that I have respect for,” she said. “I would be the first woman serving on these boards. It’s a chance to make a difference.”
Breaking the glass ceiling in the corporate boardroom is in line with her advocacy for diversity as treasurer, she said. Among the examples she cited was a pair of programs to hire smaller investment management firms that give special consideration to businesses owned by minorities and women; and pushing the Securities and Exchange Commission to require companies to strengthen disclosure of the diversity of their boards of directors.
After 15 years in elected office – she was on the Raleigh city council and a state senator before she became treasurer – Cowell said she’s interested in turning the page and working in the private sector. But she dismissed rumors – Cowell said she was amazed at how detailed those rumors have been – that she has already lined up a job, or was in the middle of negotiating a job.
“I have not talked to anybody about a job,” she said.