Commentary, COVID-19

North Carolinians deserve more information about the State Treasurer’s bout with COVID-19

State Treasurer Dale Folwell

Let’s make it clear at the outset that everyone should be pulling for State Treasurer Dale Folwell to make a swift and complete recovery from COVID-19 and that no one is blaming him for falling ill.

As the disease continues its rampage through American society, almost everyone is at risk even when taking significant precautions.

It’s also true that hindsight is 20/20. While one wishes that Folwell had been more alert and cautious and not decided to head back to work after returning from a trip to an undisclosed location with his son with illness symptoms he dismissed as a typical cold or allergy, fallible humans often make mistakes. What’s more, while others in his office have subsequently tested positive for the illness as well, we do not know at this point if they worked with or were exposed to Folwell. (As a side note, one fervently hopes that, wherever he and his son went on their trip, Folwell notified as many people as possible with whom he came in contact.)

All that said, this situation raises some important legal issues about which North Carolinians deserve some additional information.

First and foremost is the matter of whether Folwell is actually exercising his constitutional and statutory duties or is even capable of doing so at this critical time for investment markets. Folwell is the sole overseer of a huge, multi-billion dollar public pension fund and has responsibility for a state health plan that serves more than 700,000 members. Raleigh’s News & Observer reported on Monday that Folwell has not responded to a text inquiry and a spokesperson said he was “under the care of doctors.” We do not know exactly what that means.

As the same N&O story also reported:

“[On March 26] Folwell said he could not answer a call from [the paper] because of the severity of his symptoms. ‘I am really focused on saving my energy by not talking which (agitates) my cough and lungs,’ Folwell said in a text message directing further questions to [Treasury Department spokesperson Frank] Lester.

On Sunday [March 29], Folwell did not answer a text message seeking an update on his condition.

Lester said Monday that Folwell remains sick and under the care of doctors. When asked if Folwell was hospitalized he said he had no further information he could provide. Lester said he is relying on Folwell’s family to tell him what they’re comfortable with the public knowing….

Lester said there is no succession plan while Folwell is out sick but that Chief of Staff Chris Farr has been leading the office.”

If Folwell is truly incapacitated, this raises important matters of state law. As a prominent North Carolina attorney recently pointed out in an email to Policy Watch, Article III, Section 7, Subsection 5 of the state constitution says the following:

(5) Acting officers.  During the physical or mental incapacity of any one of these officers [including the state Treasurer] to perform the duties of his office, as determined pursuant to this Section, the duties of his office shall be performed by an acting officer who shall be appointed by the Governor.
In addition, General Statue 147(a)(3) (which deals with the Governor’s right to fill vacancies in other offices) states in relevant part:

The Governor may determine (after such inquiry as the Governor deems appropriate) that any of the officers referred to in this paragraph is physically or mentally incapable of performing the duties of the office. The Governor may also determine that such incapacity has terminated.

In other words, while it’s heartening to know that someone is minding the store during his illness, Folwell doesn’t appear to be empowered under state law to simply designate such a person. That power resides with the governor.
What’s more, with the plague of COVID-19 likely to be felt in our state for some time, it’s entirely plausible that another constitutional officer could fall ill and it would appear to be a worrisome precedent that is being set if the governor has not been involved in selecting an acting officer as state law appears to require.

6 Comments


  1. Dorothy Timmons

    April 1, 2020 at 11:17 am

    Thank you for keeping us informed . The question I am hearing is citizens are having trouble still applying for unemployment. First the site stays down a lot, the phone lines are not being answered just continued message to try your call later. This goes on for days !

  2. Mike Fuller

    April 1, 2020 at 10:16 pm

    Your partisan article assumes that Treasurer Folwell was infected on his trip with his son and brought that back to his office. You don’t know that. You have zero evidence that those infected in the Treasurer’s office had no travel. And even if they didn’t, you have zero knowledge that the virus was transmitted through Mr Folwell.
    Can you not just pray for all infected and wish speedy recoveries? We are all human.

  3. Leanne Petty

    April 2, 2020 at 8:13 am

    Thank you for this! I am a media member who interviewed Mr. Folwell in a small radio studio on March 20 and only learned of his positive test when he released his statement the following Wednesday. To say I was concerned that he coughed through the entire 30-minute interview would be putting it mildly. I contacted my doctor as soon as I read Folwell’s statement, and my family & I have been in quarantine ever since, fortunately with no symptoms. The radio station was never contacted by anyone from Folwell’s office or the Forsyth County Health Dept. to let us know that we may have been exposed, and when I call the health department, they didn’t seem very concerned. I certainly understand HIPAA laws, but still feel angry about the lack of transparency in this situation. Why hasn’t he said where he and his son traveled? Mr. Folwell spoke to a lot of media representatives the week of March 16. We shouldn’t have had to find out about this by doing a report on our own newscasts!

  4. Andrew M Silton

    April 2, 2020 at 9:00 am

    As Treasurer Folwell reminds us, he is in the risk management business. If one of his managers or contractors fell ill, as sole fiduciary he would be asking the uncomfortable questions raised in this commentary. If U.S. Secretary of the Treasurer or our State Governor were to contract Covid-19, the same sorts of questions would apply. This is not about politics or partisanship. It is about governing, and governing is critical in a crisis.

  5. Kimberly Prince

    April 2, 2020 at 12:59 pm

    You left out a few details. How long has Treasurer Folwell been unable to work in any capacity? Any half decently set up government office should be able to withstand a few weeks without their boss. If he is out for more than three weeks without being able to communicate or work from home, or if there are signs that the office is falling into disarray, that would be a different story. Right now, it seems that following standard policy for sick leave should suffice.

  6. Alice Elliott

    April 3, 2020 at 11:55 am

    I appreciate the daylight brought to this subject. Thank you for drawing attention to a situation that has far-reaching implications, and could be repeated unknown numbers of times in the near future. Governor Cooper doubtless has a lot on his plate, but he will need to establish precedent promptly. And for whoever commented above that your article was partisan, I disagree; 700,000 retirees just want contituity and stability, not some snide debate points.

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