Cowell crossed line in campaign, ex-aide says

State Sen. Janet Cowell tried to use her Senate office to get a Dell lobbyist to help fix a campaign worker's laptop, according to a former Cowell Senate staffer.

The line-crossing between Cowell's campaign for state treasurer and the taxpayer-funded Senate office was one of several examples of apparently inappropriate coordination between the two operations.

Sherry Johnson, who resigned from Cowell's Senate office in February after complaining about demands from the campaign, said Cowell called last winter and asked another Senate staffer, Cindy Garrison, to contact a Dell lobbyist to help repair or replace a campaign worker's laptop.

Cowell, a Wake County Democrat, said the campaign worker was an N.C. resident who she was trying to help. Cowell initially said she asked for the lobbyist's phone number but then said she didn't remember if she asked the Senate staffer to call. Garrison said she vaguely remembered the exchange but was certain she did not call a lobbyist.

“This is another of those fine lines,” Cowell said. “This was someone who had trouble with a laptop, and I knew someone who might be able to help and the (phone) number resided on a database in the office.”

Johnson said she intervened on Garrison's behalf, calling Cowell about the request.

“I could not get it to resonate with her that the entire request was inappropriate from top to bottom,” Johnson said. “I told her to remember the rule that if it's something you don't want on the 11 o'clock news or on the front page of the newspaper, then don't do it. And then it registered with her.”

Cowell said she instructed her Senate staff to “push back” if they received inappropriate requests. She said she held several meetings with staff to discuss the barriers between the senate and campaign offices.

“We made a very good faith effort,” Cowell said. “I think it's very important to have that firewall.”

Johnson said the meetings had little effect on the flow of demands from the campaign. A September 2007 e-mail shows Jonathan Ducote, the campaign manager, attempting to coordinate the Senate office's activities, including proposing legislation.

When Cowell was read a passage from a Ducote e-mail, she responded: “That does sound inappropriate,” adding later, “I'm sure mistakes were made.”