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Treasurer's race raises questions over fundraising, NC currency

Posted November 2, 2012 3:21 p.m. EDT
Updated November 2, 2012 7:01 p.m. EDT

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— The race for state treasurer pits incumbent Democrat Janet Cowell against Steve Royal, a CPA from Elkin.

The office oversees North Carolina's investments, including the $75 billion pension fund for teachers and state employees. Cowell says the funds have performed well on her watch over the past four years.

"We have maintained one of the top pensions in the country – some of the best investment returns in the country with pensions – and we've also kept the AAA bond rating," she said.

Similar to a credit rating for individuals, a bond rating determines a government’s ability to pay back debt. The AAA is the highest rating a government can receive, providing it with the lowest interest rates.

Rating firms and outside groups have praised the performance of Cowell, a former state senator and Raleigh City Council member, but Royal says her office makes it hard to tell whether the state could be doing better.

"I want to have it so it's complete transparency to where people can see every investment we have, who has it, how much we're paying them and what the return is on those people," he said.

Royal, who has never held public office, is running a very low-key campaign on just $7,000, much of it his own money. Cowell has raised nearly $1.2 million for her campaign, including donations tied to the financial industry.

"It's pay to play. It is, and it does look like conflict of interest," Royal said of his opponent's funding.

Cowell counters that the treasurer's office has the toughest donation rules in state government because it has to adhere to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regulations as well as its own ethics rules and state conflict-of-interest laws.

"I think folks can feel pretty assured that we are, you know, as free of conflict of interest as any office, probably more so than any office in the state," she said.

If Royal is elected, he says he'll push lawmakers to consider setting up a regional money system with neighboring states because he worries that the Federal Reserve will cause the U.S. monetary system to collapse.

"It only seems prudent to me to have a plan in North Carolina that might help alleviate the horrific results if something like that did occur," he said.

Cowell said a secondary currency plan could harm North Carolina's economy, noting that investors and pensioners are already asking questions about the idea.

"I think it's so far outside the mainstream that it does shake the confidence in the business climate here in North Carolina to have a treasurer candidate making statements like that," she said.