WASHINGTON-A well-respected employee benefits lawyer from Texas and a pension lawyer at a Washington trade association are competing for the top pension regulator's job at the Labor Department.
James R. Raborn, a partner at the law firm of Baker Botts LLP, who has offices in Houston and Dallas, is being mentioned in Washington as a likely Bush administration pick for the job of the assistant labor secretary of the Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration.
Mr. Raborn, chairman of the American Bar Association's subcommittee on employee stock ownership plans, routinely represents employers in lawsuits over pension plan matters and in mergers and acquisitions, according to his resume.
Mr. Raborn did not return numerous calls seeking comments.
Ann L. Combs, vice president and chief counsel of retirement and pension issues at the American Council of Life Insurers, the Washington trade group, also is a contender for the top pension job. Ms. Combs was deputy assistant secretary for pensions in the Reagan and Bush administrations in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She worked as a consultant in the Washington office of William M. Mercer Inc. before joining the ACLI in June 1999.
Although she declined to be interviewed for this story, Ms. Combs, in a telephone interview several weeks ago, professed little interest in the assistant labor secretary's position. At the time, she said she had not been at the ACLI very long and still had a full plate. She apparently has changed her mind, and is being backed by the trade group. Ms. Combs, a highly likable person, also is favored by various other pension groups in Washington.
Bill Sweetnam Jr., majority counsel for pensions to the Senate Finance Committee under Sen. William V. Roth Jr., might have dropped off the list because he is expected to be named benefits tax counsel at the U.S. Treasury Department instead. In a recent telephone interview, Mr. Sweetnam said he would take whatever position the Bush administration offered him.
Scott J. Macey, senior counsel at Aon Consulting/ASA, an employee benefits consulting firm, was on the list briefly. His name was put forward by the ERISA Industry Committee, the Washington trade group representing large pension plan sponsors. Mr. Macey was chairman of the ERISA Industry Committee and continues to serve on its board of directors.
James B. Lockhart III, who was executive director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. in President George Bush's administration in the early 1990s, also was rumored to be on the list because he went to school at Andover with President George W. Bush and was a fraternity mate with him at Yale. But Mr. Lockhart, chief administrative and financial officer at NetRisk Inc., a Greenwich, Conn.-based risk software consulting firm, said he was not interested in the job at present. "But, who knows, things change," Mr. Lockhart said.
Meanwhile, pension experts and Washington insiders say both Mr. Raborn and Ms. Combs are highly qualified, and either would be a good fit for the assistant labor secretary's job.
David Gordon, a partner in the Los Angeles office of the law firm of O'Melveny & Myers, called Mr. Raborn "one of the outstanding employee benefits lawyers in the country."
J. Michael Keeling, president of the Washington-based ESOP Association, said Mr. Raborn would deal even-handedly with matters involving employee stock ownership plans. "He would not be a toady for the ESOP community," Mr. Keeling noted.
Because of his experience in representing pension plan sponsors in dealing with the complexities of federal pension law, Mr. Raborn probably would support efforts to make federal regulations more user-friendly, Mr. Gordon suggested.
At the same time, Washington pension experts said Ms. Combs could hit the ground running because of her previous experience at the Labor Department, and her breadth of knowledge of pension and health care issues.
Ms. Combs also served on a presidential task force examining Social Security in the mid-1990s and is a proponent of partial privatization of the ailing system.
Brian H. Graff, executive director of the American Society of Pension Actuaries, an Arlington, Va.-based trade association, said if Ms. Combs were appointed to the Labor Department job, he expected she would back efforts to simplify pension rules, as well as make it easier for employers to offer retirement plans and for participants to get better information about how to invest their retirement dollars.
To be sure, any person appointed to the job would stick to the Republican code of not over-regulating, said Randolf H. Hardock, a partner in the Washington law firm of Davis & Harman.