Treasurer receives warning on style

Aggressive manner may hurt re-election bid, legislators say

June 19, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Influential legislators have warned Maryland Treasurer Richard N. Dixon that his strong-willed and sometimes tactless leadership of the state's pension system could create political problems for him when he seeks re-election.

Dixon has alienated several members of the retirement system's board with his leadership style and aggressive investment strategies - prompting complaints to leaders of the General Assembly, whose members have twice elected the former Carroll County lawmaker to the powerful post.

The treasurer brushed off the criticism and insisted he plans no changes in the way he does business. "There are people who don't like me because I'm not out to make friends with anybody," he said.

FOR THE RECORD - The age of State Treasurer Richard N. Dixon was incorrectly reported in an article yesterday. He is 62. The article also misidentified a television program on which investment adviser Howard P. Colhoun has appeared. It is "Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser."
The Sun regrets the error.

Some pension board members are especially concerned about Dixon's persistent moves to increase the percentage of the state's pension fund investments in the stock market. They have shared those worries with legislative leaders, who are urging caution.

Board members have also complained about Dixon's openly contemptuous treatment of a respected financial adviser whom Dixon blocked from reappointment to the panel's investment committee.

The adviser, Howard P. Colhoun, now describes the way the pension system is run as a "dictatorship."

Dixon, 63, is up for re-election tomorrow as chairman of the $30 billion State Retirement and Pension System, and it appears likely that he will keep the post he took over after the death of longtime Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein.

But Dixon has created political problems for himself that could come back to haunt him in 2003, when he plans to seek a third term as treasurer.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said he has heard complaints about Dixon from several members of the pension system board. The system covers more than 214,000 members and 77,000 retirees and beneficiaries.

The complaints "have caused me to have conversations with the treasurer," Taylor said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he, too, wants to talk to Dixon.

"I was going to try to talk to Richard, just to advise him that there were concerns out there, from a number of different sources. The speaker and I want to continue to work with him," Miller said.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, predicted that Dixon will "moderate" his behavior. "I know Richard has that survival instinct," he said.

Rawlings, a West Baltimore Democrat, said that in the end Dixon will be judged not on personality but upon his financial performance as state treasurer.

According to Dixon, that performance has been exemplary. He noted that the value of the pension fund's assets has increased from about $20 million to $30 million over the last four years, leaving the system close to being fully funded.

"Because of actions initiated by me, we made $820 million the last two years," Dixon said.

He said he is hardly ever wrong about investment decisions.

"There is not one thing I've done that's done other than enhance the value of our assets," Dixon said. "I am very good at what I do."

To emphasize his point during an interview at his home in New Windsor, Dixon showed a reporter the cars in his garage and driveway - a Lincoln Town Car, a Chevrolet Blazer sports utility vehicle and a bright-red 1994 Corvette. "They are all from money I made in the stock market," he said.

In the past, Dixon's political skills have been acute enough that the African-American Democrat won four terms in the House of Delegates in an overwhelmingly white, largely Republican district.

But since his election as treasurer, Dixon has become well-known in Annapolis for boasting about his achievements.

The former stockbroker's penchant for proclaiming himself "the best treasurer in the nation" has rubbed some people the wrong way, while others in state government treat his behavior as a joke. Some legislators refer to him mockingly as "B.T." - for "Best Treasurer."

Pension system trustees, however, found little to laugh about in the hardball tactics Dixon used to block the reappointment of Colhoun, an 18-year member of the board's investment committee who was once a regular on "Washington Week in Review."

In April, members of the committee voted overwhelmingly to re-nominate Colhoun, who had clashed with Dixon over some investment decisions, as one of three professional advisers on the panel.

They acted after Dixon stalked out of the meeting vowing to block Colhoun's nomination when it came before the three-member state Board of Public Works. It is made up of Dixon, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

Before the Board of Public Works could act, Colhoun withdrew his name from consideration. But Dixon, who had tried unsuccessfully to block Colhoun's reappointment three years ago, was so adamantly opposed that he tried to force a vote anyway at the May 10 meeting.

The treasurer did not succeed; Glendening ruled that Colhoun's withdrawal took the matter off the agenda.

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