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Debating Mitt Romney's departure date from Bain Capital

July 13, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Mitt Romney, shown working at Bain Capital in 1993.
Mitt Romney, shown working at Bain Capital in 1993. (David L. Ryan / Boston Globe…)

This post has been updated, as indicated below.

Online pundits continued to joust Friday over when Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital ended, reacting to a series of reports (e.g., here, here, here and here) that Romney remained involved in Bain's investments after he left the company in February 1999.

That just goes to show you -- the Washington Post isn't as powerful as it used to be. More important for Romney, it's a reminder that what makes sense on Wall Street doesn't necessarily play well in the reductive world of American politics. When your defense relies on an assertion that the person holding the title of chief executive may have nothing to do with the company's actions, you're on treacherous ground.

Beyond that, the tempest over Romney's departure date reflects the lamentable degree to which this campaign is focusing on resumes and past accomplishments (or failures), as opposed to governing visions and plans for the country's future.

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

To recap, the controversy began after Mother Jones, Talking Points Memo and the Boston Globe dug up forms filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the three years after Romney's ostensible departure from Bain Capital that describe him as the “sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer and president" of the firm and various related entities. On their face, those forms challenge the candidate's assertion (which he also made when he ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008) that he had no "active" role in Bain or any hand in its operations after 1999.

Romney's defenders argue that the forms assigned titles to him based on technicalities, reflecting the fact that he didn't officially sever his contractual ties to Bain until 2002. That severance agreement was retroactive to February 1999, when Romney took a leave of absence from the company to run the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler had examined many of the same SEC filings back in January when evaluating a claim by President Obama's campaign that Romney was responsible at Bain for job losses at KB Toys, among other companies Bain had invested in. Kessler has revisited the topic several times since then, most recently on Friday, concluding that the weight of the evidence from Massachusetts state filings and court documents supports the contention that Romney was nothing more than a passive investor in Bain after 1999. Here's an excerpt from his piece in January:

"By virtually all accounts, Romney was focused on Olympics in the 1999-2002 period. Yet because Romney had not legally separated from Bain, his name is littered across Securities and Exchange Commission filings concerning Bain Capital deals during this period. The crazy quilt of private-equity structures, in some ways, makes his ownership appear even more ominous, as the filings list hundreds of thousands of shares controlled by Romney."

Kessler's reporting is persuasive, but it's obviously not stopping Democrats and their media allies from making hay with the SEC filings. Obama campaign officials went so far as to suggest that the statements Bain made to the SEC warranted a criminal investigation.

Why is Romney's departure date from Bain so important to Obama's supporters? Because they're eager to rebut Romney's claim of private-sector job-creating prowess by saddling him with all the layoffs, plant closures and bankruptcies that occurred in the wake of Romney's Bain investments. They also want to tie him to Bain investments post-February 1999 in such hot-button companies as Stericycle, a company that disposes of aborted fetuses and other biological waste.

Romney concedes that some of Bain's investments didn't pan out but argues that he shouldn't be held responsible for choices made by executives at the companies Bain managed long after his involvement ended. At the same time, however, he claims credit for jobs created by some of Bain's more successful bets, such as Staples, years after he severed ties with them.

As for situations like Stericycle, the rebuttal boils down to an assertion that securities documents are complex and can't be parsed based on the usual meaning of the words therein. As Kessler put it, paraphrasing an (anonymous) securities law expert he'd interviewed, "someone can be listed as a chief executive and actually have no responsibilities whatsoever."

Really? That's going to play well in Peoria.

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