Politics: Mary Ellen Withrow's Treasure

Jeff Long
Former U.S. Treasurer Mary Ellen Withrow holds a redesigned $50 bill during a news conference at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving in Washington in 1997.

Richard Cordray's choice of Mary Ellen Withrow as campaign treasurer in his run for governor feels like a perfect karmic fit. Both of them are Democrats from modest Central Ohio towns who ascended to become their home state's treasurer before moving to Washington D.C. for powerful perches rarely occupied by natives of places like Marion and Grove City.

Withrow has been there from the beginning for Cordray, endorsing him in his first run for state representative in 1990. “Early on she gave me credibility,” Cordray says. Their stars rose together. Withrow did two stints as state treasurer then was named U.S. treasurer by President Bill Clinton (in her time, she oversaw the redesigns of the quarter and all paper currency—her signature is on $1.1 trillion of it). Cordray became Ohio's solicitor general, treasurer and attorney general then was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Now he's running for governor, and what better pick for campaign treasurer than his old mentor? “I joke with her,” Cordray says. “This is sort of her final promotion.” Indeed, Withrow is in her late 80s and lives in a retirement community in her hometown of Marion. But while Cordray has spent the past few years looking out for consumers, Withrow has been approaching them from a different angle.

The letter typically arrives in a huge envelope marked “Extremely Urgent” with “Mary Ellen Withrow, 40th Treasurer Emeritus of the United States of America” visible through the plastic window. “As Executive Advisor to the Lincoln Treasury,” it reads, “I've been instructed to make sure every Ohio resident hears this breaking news.”

You've seen these breathless direct marketing campaigns—in tabloids, in the mail and online—urging you to CALL NOW before this incredible offer expires. In this case the pitch is for 1-ounce bars of silver, or in marketing lingo, “the only existing Ohio State Silver Bars.” The cost of 1 ounce of silver is about $17. The Withrow silver bars go for $59. And the former U.S. treasurer has endorsed them in the same way she has long endorsed Cordray, despite the fact the “Lincoln Treasury” is a subsidiary of a company owned by Ben Suarez, a North Canton direct marketer who spent about 13 months in jail for witness tampering after a campaign-finance investigation in 2013. The company declared bankruptcy last August.

What gives, Rich? Withrow “is more of a titular treasurer than a hands-on treasurer,” Cordray says. (His campaign did not make her available.) Ohio law compels candidates to disclose a campaign treasurer's name on official literature, he says, and Withrow lends her name for that. Asked if he's familiar with the products Withrow touts, Cordray says, “Not particularly, no,” though he says he's generally aware of the idea. The Lincoln Treasury rationale typically has been that the bars are collectibles of numismatic interest, not a way to sell silver at three times its actual value. There's nothing illegal about it, and a search of the CFPB consumer complaint database turned up nothing for Withrow or her silver bars.

Cordray is still happy to have Withrow on board; he's already campaigned with her once, he says. “When you lend your name and credibility ... that's meaningful.”

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