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Treasurer candidate would use investment powers to force change

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    Democratic state treasurer candidate Rob Richardson, center, speaks Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, in Columbus.

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COLUMBUS — The Democratic candidate for state treasurer on Monday said that, if elected, he will use the power of Ohio’s investment portfolio to promote civil rights — and his first target will be for-profit prisons.

“I don’t think there’s any more simple issue than criminal justice reform,” said Rob Richardson, labor attorney and former mayoral candidate in Cincinnati. “I think for-profit prisons have really no place in government. We as the state of Ohio invest quite a bit in for-profit prisons. I don’t think it’s right economically or morally.”

The treasurer, Ohio’s top broker and banker, directly oversees an investment portfolio of $21.5 billion in taxpayer dollars, and holds for safekeeping an estimated $224 billion, including the portfolios of the state’s five public pension systems.

In the past, treasurers have taken factors other than simply the best dollar investment return when making decisions. For example, treasurers have directed investments to help small businesses.

But Mr. Richardson said he believes he could use his office’s investment authority as a bully pulpit to effect social change. His campaign pointed to investments by the state’s largest public pension fund, the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System, in CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, and The GEO Group, a Florida-based for-profit prison company.

“We have the fourth-largest prison population in the United States,” he said. “We have more people in prison than New York. Those are things that, I think, policy-wise I can’t do all from the treasurer’s office, but I can certainly use this platform when possible to promote this.”

He said he would also push for a fiscal analysis of Ohio’s prison system to determine ways to reduce population, a move that would lie outside the authority of his office.

“If you look at how much we spend on incarceration — we spend over $1 billion a year — I would argue being able to reduce that is going to have a much greater impact long-term for taxpayers and opportunities for folks,” Mr. Richardson said.

While pension funds are banked through the treasurer’s office, the office does not make investment decisions for those funds. His office has representation on the pension boards under state law, and any appointee from his office would share his vision, he said.

He also said he doesn’t see his move as running contrary to the policy of the state, which pays to incarcerate some inmates at privately run prisons.

“For-profit prisons are not secure investments,” Mr. Richardson said. “They require subsidies from the state, so it’s not like we’re getting huge returns. We’re actually subsidizing on the back end while also reducing opportunities for people.”

Mr. Richardson’s opponent on Nov. 6 is state Rep. Robert Sprague (R., Findlay).

“I think the pension systems need to be focused on saving that money for the pensioners, and I think it’s a huge mistake for somebody in a political office to force them to make investments one way or the other, divesting in things or investing,” Mr. Sprague said. “I just don’t think you want to weaponize the treasurer’s office to pressure the pension systems.”

The sole African-American for statewide executive office, Mr. Richardson noted he founded the first chapter of the NAACP on the campus of the University of Cincinnati, where he once served on the board of trustees.

He supports voter passage of Issue 1, a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that would reduce low-level, non-violent drug felonies to no more than misdemeanors and redirect any savings within the prison system into treatment and crime victims’ programs.

Mr Sprague opposes the ballot issue. 

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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