Editorials

State Treasurer Cowell mars her record by joining corporate boards

North Carolina State Treasurer Janet Cowell attending a Council of State meeting in 2015 with Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. Cowell recently raised ethics issues by joining corporate boards before she leaves office at the end of this year.
North Carolina State Treasurer Janet Cowell attending a Council of State meeting in 2015 with Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. Cowell recently raised ethics issues by joining corporate boards before she leaves office at the end of this year. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Janet Cowell has had a long, successful and pretty smooth run in public service, starting with a seat on the Raleigh City Council, moving to the legislature and then to the office of state treasurer. But she risks, after two terms (she’s leaving), staining her record with a bad decision to join the boards of two publicly traded corporations before her term is up.

One company, ChannelAdvisor, will pay her $50,000 a year and give her restricted stock valued at $150,000. The other, James River Group Holdings, a specialty insurance company based in Bermuda, pays directors $75,000 a year plus $25,000 in stock.

Cowell had her plans pre-approved by the State Ethics Commission. That casts a serious question over whether there’s any point in having such a commission. (Other N.C. treasurers have not had board posts.)

Frankly, if Cowell felt the need to run her plans by the group, it should have been an internal signal that this wasn’t something she should do.

She most certainly will gain a lucrative job in the private sector. But why couldn’t she wait until leaving office just a few months from now to take these posts? The state’s finances, which her office oversees, touch many companies through stock ownership. One of the companies that manages state assets also is, for example, a large stockholder in James River. And the head of James River is a director of a bank where the state has large deposits.

Cowell made a very bad decision here, and so did the ethics commission. Candidates to succeed her, Democrat Dan Blue III and Republican Dale Folwell, must pledge not to take such posts. Folwell has made the pledge; Blue has not, with his campaign saying any “opportunities” would be cleared by the ethics commission. Given the group’s lousy performance here, that’s not good enough. Blue needs to step up, and now, or he risks his credibility as a candidate.

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