Help wanted sign is out for top jobs

Possible candidates floated for SEC and top pension posts

President-elect Barack Obama — who ran on the promise of change — looks to be living up to his word, based on the potential appointees to top pension and investment policy positions in his incoming administration.

The new administration is expected to be friendlier to organized labor, consumers and shareholder rights groups than the more pro-business Bush administration.

“There's going to be a new understanding, with the economy tanking, that we're going to need to look for new solutions that don't put the risks and responsibilities of retirement savings solely on individuals,” said Karen Friedman, policy director of the Pension Rights Center, a Washington-based group that promotes retirement security for consumers.

“While you would expect an Obama administration to be more friendly to consumers and labor organizations, it really comes down to who the individual appointed is,” said David Tittsworth, executive director of the Investment Adviser Association, Washington.

While it's likely that President-elect Obama will name a chairman for the Securities and Exchange Commission soon, it might take longer for other pension policy posts to be filled. For one thing, nominees for Cabinet posts are named ahead of subordinate roles.

SEC chairman

Among the names being floated to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission are: Gary Gensler, a senior Treasury Department official during the Clinton administration; Robert C. Pozen, chairman, MFS Investment Management Inc., Boston; Damon Silvers, associate general counsel of the AFL-CIO, Washington; Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments LLC, Chicago; and three former SEC commissioners — Harvey Goldschmid, Roel Campos and Annette Nazareth.

Mr. Gensler, a fundraiser for and adviser to the president-elect, is said to have the inside track for the post. A former executive for Goldman Sachs Group (GS) Inc., New York, Mr. Gensler co-authored a 2002 book about investing, “The Great Mutual Fund Trap.” He could not be reached for comment.

“He'd be an excellent SEC chairman,” said Mark Iwry, who was benefits tax counsel at the Treasury Department in the Clinton administration and is now non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Mr. Iwry also served as an adviser on retirement issues to the Obama campaign and is said to be in the running for two pension policy appointments in the incoming administration.

Ms. Hobson denied interest in the post. “I'm committed to Ariel,” she said in an interview. John W. Rogers Jr., Ariel's founder and chief executive officer, is a longtime supporter and friend of Mr. Obama, who reportedly spent much of the day after the election at Ariel's Chicago office.

“This is what I will be doing for the foreseeable future,” Ms. Hobson continued. “I am not going to Washington.”

Columbia University's Mr. Goldschmid did not return calls at deadline. But his rumored candidacy has garnered at least some union and industry support. “This is clearly a guy who knows the securities laws and the SEC,” said Mr. Tittsworth.

“We hope to see the appointment of an activist as chairman of the SEC,” said Richard Ferlauto, director of corporate governance and pension investment at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Washington. As examples, Mr. Ferlauto gave Mr. Goldschmid and James D. Cox, Brainerd Currie Professor of Law at Duke University, Durham, N.C.

“I expect to be considered (for the SEC chairmanship),” said Mr. Campos, who is now an attorney with the law firm of Cooley Godward Kronish LLP, Washington. Mr. Campos also said he was “very qualified” to fill the SEC's top position, though not certain that he's interested. “But I expect to be consulted and to offer advice on the selection of an SEC chairman,” Mr. Campos said.

Mr. Pozen had no comment, according to a spokesman. Ms. Nazareth, a former SEC commissioner and staffer, and Mr. Silvers also declined to comment.

EBSA assistant secretary

For the Department of Labor's Employee Benefits Security Administration assistant secretary's post, there's a host of names in the mix. Mr. Iwry is one; another is Teresa Ghilarducci, director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at the New School for Social Research, New York; Phyllis Borzi, a professor at George Washington University, Washington; Michele Varnhagen, an aide to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.; Portia Wu, an aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.; Judy Mazo, senior vice president and director of research, Segal Co., a benefits consulting firm in New York; David Certner, legislative counsel and policy director, AARP in Washington; and AFSCME's Mr. Ferlauto.

Ms. Ghilarducci's name on the list is a surprise, Washington insiders say. She has been promoting a proposal to radically revise the nation's retirement savings system, eliminating the tax-favored treatment of employee contributions to 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts. Instead, workers would receive a $600 tax credit to offset contributions to a new mandatory guaranteed plan managed and administered by the federal government. Her plan has been panned by representatives of employer groups but is getting favorable reviews from Mr. Miller, influential chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee (Pensions & Investments, Oct. 27).

Neither Ms. Borzi nor Mr. Ferlauto has been contacted about the job. “Although it is always flattering to appear on these kinds of lists, if I'm being considered for any job in the Obama (administration), that would be news to me,” Ms. Borzi, a former congressional staffer, said in an e-mail.

“It would be a great honor to serve in an Obama administration,” said AFSCME's Mr. Ferlauto. “I haven't been contacted yet but would certainly consider any requests.”

Ms. Varnhagen, labor policy director for the House Education and Labor Committee, was not available for comment, a committee spokesman said.

Ms. Wu and Ms. Mazo could not be reached for comment. But they received the endorsement of Diann Howland, vice president of legislative affairs for the American Benefits Council, Washington. “They're both well liked and respected and would be easily confirmable,” Ms. Howland said.

Added Anthony Coley, a spokesman for Mr. Kennedy, in Ms. Wu's behalf: “Sen. Kennedy is known for attracting the best and brightest minds, so it comes as no surprise that Kennedy staffers would be mentioned for any number of positions.”

“I would be honored to be considered,” said AARP's Mr. Certner.

Mr. Iwry declined comment.

PBGC director

Ms. Ghilarducci's name surfaced again as possible director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. Ms. Ghilarducci confirmed that she is interested in a key position in the Obama administration but said she has not heard from the campaign. “That (assistant secretary of the DOL's EBSA) or the PBGC have a lot of potential,” she said.

Judy Schub, managing director of the Committee on the Investment of Employee Benefit Assets, Bethesda, Md., also was mentioned as a possible candidate to lead the PBGC. Ms. Schub said it was “impossible to speculate” on whether she would seek appointment to lead the PBGC now. She served as PBGC's assistant director during the Clinton administration.

Candidates rumored to be in the running for benefits tax counsel, a key Treasury Department post overseeing retirement plans and other issues, are Mr. Iwry; James Delaplane, an ERISA attorney at the Washington law firm of Davis & Harman LLP; and Tom Schendt, a benefits attorney for Alston & Bird LLP, Washington.

Mr. Delaplane said it's ”very flattering to be mentioned, but I am not pursuing positions or opportunities in the executive branch.”

Mr. Schendt, formerly a senior attorney in the Internal Revenue Service's chief counsel's office for tax-exempt government entities, would not comment.

Contact Doug Halonen at dhalonen@pionline.com