Emails WW has obtained via a public records request show friction in recent weeks between Rukaiyah Adams, chairwoman of the Oregon Investment Council, and State Treasurer Tobias Read, who acts as the state's banker and is one of five members of the OIC.
In her day job, Adams is chief investment officer for the $800 million Meyer Memorial Trust and is also a leader of Albina Vision, a civic group seeking to revive inner Northeast Portland. As OIC chair, she's responsible for policy and investment decisions for more than $100 billion in pension and public funds. Adams was appointed to the OIC in 2013 by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber and reappointed by Gov. Kate Brown.
Read, a Democrat who represented Beaverton in the Oregon House for five terms before winning election as treasurer in 2016, manages the state's borrowing and its cash.
Adams and Read work closely together, but emails show she's bluntly expressed concerns about the OIC's transparency and a key policy shift treasury staff is mulling—as well as whether that policy could benefit Read's political ambitions.
Although the Oregon Investment Council plays an important role in the state—it is the agency tasked with filling the seemingly bottomless pension deficit—its operations get little scrutiny from either the public or the press. That makes the exacting emails from Adams, who has a full-time job to occupy her attention, all the more unusual. The correspondence underscores why many people predict she's preparing for even greater responsibilities in the future.
Here are selections from the emails, with analysis to provide context:
FROM: Rukaiyah Adams, OIC Chair
TO: Tobias Read, Oregon Treasurer
DATE: Oct. 21, 2019
"A few months ago, I asked you…to consider reposting the minutes that had been taken down during the website redesign. When I looked last week, after being pressed by constituents, all of them had not been posted. I am reiterating my request."
FROM: Dmitri Palmateer, Read's chief of staff
DATE: Oct. 21, 2019
"As we relaunched the website, we strove to ensure usability and ease of access at the same time as we provided archives of material that can easily be requested. I've also communicated to staff that we should strive to provide exceptional customer service to those who cannot find what they are looking for at first glance on our site. If we didn't get that balance right, please let us know."
WHAT IT MEANS: Although the OIC manages a massive amount of money, its monthly meetings are sparsely attended by members of the public and lightly covered, if at all, by the news media. Historically, the agency preserved key documents, such as meeting minutes, historical investment returns and presentations by investment managers, on the OIC website. But after Read succeeded former Treasurer Ted Wheeler, the agency redesigned its website and removed a lot of that historical information.
Bill Parish, a Portland investment manager who regularly attends OIC meetings and has frequently criticized the agency, raised concerns about transparency in the OIC's public comment period. "What Tobias and Dmitri Palmateer don't seem to understand is that this is not some private parlor game but rather an exercise in the integrity of governance," Parish tells WW. "Read serves the public, not his additional political or Wall Street ambitions. Scrubbing away years of meeting minutes and attached materials removes important accountability."
Read says he never intended to reduce the information available to the public; rather, the goal was to streamline a clunky and cluttered website.
DATE: Oct. 21, 2019
"I was notified by a media source that there is an OIC policy under review for change related to responsible contracting. I was told that it had been discussed with union partners and had been under consideration for several weeks. I was surprised to hear that this work is being done without discussing it with me, as chair, or the board. As you know, OIC is a policy-making board and I take attempts to change policy without a mandate from the board seriously."
WHAT IT MEANS: Treasury staff has indeed been working on a significant policy shift related to the OIC's real estate holdings. Today, the council's policy is that it can dictate terms only on management issues, such as whether a building uses union contractors, if it controls 100 percent of the building's equity. Treasury staff is considering proposing that the OIC lower that threshold to 51 percent, which would give the council significantly more say—and would make its union "partners" happy.
In an interview, Read says the goal would be more responsible and sustainable management, not currying favor with organized labor. "We are trying to ensure the properties are well managed for the long term," he says.
Read adds that it's "pretty standard" for treasury staff to develop draft policy before bringing it to the OIC. "That's how policy is developed," he says, "and I feel confident it's been mentioned to the council at least in passing."
DATE: Oct. 21, 2019
"I know that [Read] has or was intending to call you about the conversations with labor on the policy. He's probably left you a message. Not sure where the media call is coming from…we are still some distance away from having a product worth discussing, particularly since, as you point out, it doesn't reflect in the input and guidance of OIC members yet."
DATE: Oct. 22, 2019
"As for the OIC policy being discussed for months with an interest group, any
interest group, before a discussion of a need for a change has been raised in any form with the council, I have the following concerns.
1. Currently, the treasurer is a member, not the chair or vice chair of the OIC—it is my understanding that all policy changes and proposed changes should be discussed with the council first, if not its leaders. Policies are not for bartering.
2. Given that the treasurer is campaigning right now, I am very concerned about side deals with interest groups. I do not want any campaigning through policy happening. At all."
WHAT IT MEANS: Read is up for re-election next year. He's unlikely to face significant opposition in the Democratic primary, but he's likely to sweat a little in the general election. In 2016, he defeated Republican Jeff Gudman by just 2.3 percentage points, with third-party candidates taking 10 percent of the vote. Gudman is running again. Adams' email is an admonishment to Read not to use his current office to bolster support from unions.
But there's more at play here: Read is on the short list of potential candidates for governor in 2022, when Brown cannot run again due to term limits. He says the responsible contracting policy is aimed at boosting the long-term returns of the OIC portfolio and has nothing to do with his personal plans. "I'm just trying to do the best job I can as treasurer," he says.
Read declined to address talk that he's interested in succeeding Brown. "It's dangerous to speculate about the future," he says. "I'm focused on running for re-election for my current job." He says his relationship with Adams is good and adds that the tone of her emails strikes him as "unusual."
Adams declined requests for comment, but there is speculation she has ambitions of her own for 2022. Three sources tell WW Adams has talked about the possibility of running to succeed Brown. "I have heard all kinds talk about what she might do," says veteran Democratic political consultant Paige Richardson. "She could run for anything and people would follow her."