Sean Harrigan, ousted earlier this month as president of the nation's largest pension fund, said yesterday he remains convinced California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Walt Disney...
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Sean Harrigan, ousted earlier this month as president of the nation’s largest pension fund, said yesterday he remains convinced California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Walt Disney Co. and Safeway played significant roles in his departure.
“I was totally convinced in early December and late November, and I’m totally convinced today, the Chamber of Commerce and Steve Burd and Michael Eisner and the Schwarzenegger administration played a key role in making sure I wasn’t re-elected,” Harrigan said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from Spokane.
“It was the only place they could take me out,” he said.
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Of Harrigan’s comments, Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson said, “It’s too bad the holiday season hasn’t done away with Mr. Harrigan’s paranoia.”
The $182.8 billion California Public Employees Retirement System, known as Calpers, controls the retirement funds of 1.4 million state employees and retirees and has sparked debate for its prominent role in pressing for corporate-governance changes.
Neither Disney nor Safeway had a response to Harrigan’s comments yesterday.
Calpers this year led unsuccessful efforts to strip the board seats of Eisner and Burd, the chief executives of Disney and Safeway, respectively. Though Eisner eventually lost his post as Disney chairman, the action against Burd proved especially controversial, coming after the United Food and Commercial Workers ended a strike against Safeway. Harrigan, 58, also works as an executive with the union.
In a wide-ranging interview, Harrigan said he plans to keep pushing corporate-governance reform. The labor activist, who began his career as a grocery-store labor representative in Washington state, said he’s received hundreds of letters of support and numerous job offers.
Joined board in 1999
Harrigan joined the Calpers board in December 1999 as a representative of the California State Personnel Board, which oversees labor-management issues for state employees.
Harrigan led a drive among institutional investors for rule changes at the Securities and Exchange Commission to let shareholders nominate their own company directors.
“There’s no better position in the world to speak out on health-care reform, whether in California, or nationally, and no better position to speak out on corporate governance,” he said.
He called new standards separating investment and research departments at investment banks among Calpers’ biggest accomplishments on his watch.
But Harrigan said it’s “50-50” whether public pension funds and other institutional investors will win the “crown jewel of corporate-governance reform,” the ability to nominate their own directors.
“There’s tremendous pressure from the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce, individual companies and the Bush administration not to support this rule,” he said.
“Corporate push back”
Those organizations, Harrigan said, trigged a “corporate push back” to force him out of his job.
“Corporate America, in my opinion, wants to maintain the status quo and I don’t think the status quo is acceptable. It’s the reason for many abuses that have taken place.”
In September 2003, Harrigan and Calpers led the effort to get New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso to resign over his $140 million pay package. Last year, Calpers also sued the exchange and seven specialist trading firms, claiming that fraudulent trading practices cost the fund millions of dollars in recent years.
Harrigan and Calpers attracted more criticism after withholding support this year from directors of 2,400 companies, including famed investor and Schwarzenegger adviser Warren Buffett at Coca-Cola.
Despite criticism from corporate America, major business publications and conservative groups, Calpers rode a rising stock market in 2004 from $161 billion in early January to $182.8 billion this week.