I’m going to be generous to Mitt Romney today. But first some context.
As his primary opponents predicted earlier this year, Mitt’s Bain Capitol record is coming back to bite him in the assets. The latest (which probably isn’t really the latest in the few minutes it takes me to write this post) comes from The Boston Globe:
Romney has said he left Bain in 1999 to lead the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, ending his role in the company. But public Securities and Exchange Commission documents filed later by Bain Capital state he remained the firm’s “sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president.”
Also, a Massachusetts financial disclosure form Romney filed in 2003 states that he still owned 100 percent of Bain Capital in 2002. And Romney’s state financial disclosure forms indicate he earned at least $100,000 as a Bain “executive” in 2001 and 2002, separate from investment earnings.
The timing of Romney’s departure from Bain is a key point of contention because he has said his resignation in February 1999 meant he was not responsible for Bain Capital companies that went bankrupt or laid off workers after that date.
Here’s the generous part: Mitt’s account may be correct! It very well may be that he left Bain for Salt Lake City, and psychologically detached from Bain, leaving all of the management in the hands of his trusted partners.
I can imagine a departing speech, perhaps held on a yacht in Boston Harbor:
I’ve got an Olympic-sized corruption scandal and fiscal problems to deal with in SLC. So, I’m taking a leave. I’ll have nothing more to do with running Bain through the end of the Olympics. I leave it to you, my trusted friends, to maximize shareholder profits. (And as the only shareholder, I demand it! [forced laugh.]) If you make the shareholder fabulously wealthy, you will be generously rewarded when I move on to my post-Olympic project…. So for now, you have the helm.
(Exit stage right.)
And maybe Mitt lived up to this ideal. There is even some evidence consistent with this account. In some sense, then he shouldn’t be held accountable for decisions made during his leave. Right?
The political problem for Mitt is that, as Kevin Drum points out, the whole thing just looks icky. Denying responsibility for big decisions while at the same time being listed as “sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president” on multiple SEC filings, makes Mitt look like he is dodging responsibility.
It feels weaselly. Apparently…the buck doesn’t stop with Mitt. (It’s spirited away to a Swiss Bank Account.)
Furthermore, pulling down a salary (even a paltry $100,000) while on leave makes it seem like he was either actively doing something for the company, or skimming without justification.
Either one may be true without tying Mitt to actual decisions (or knowledge of) embarrassing investments and politically damaging layoffs. But, either way, it still looks bad, and people will have to be excused for feeling misled by Mitt.
But here is the deal. I think this Bain thing has left Mitt in a precarious position…and with a much bigger problem.
The problem is that any evidence of decision making at Bain during his leave will make a liar out of Mitt. The evidence so far is good for Mitt. And thousands and thousands of pages of additional documentation may well be released. But proof doesn’t come from negative evidence, so uncertainty will linger.
The flip side is that it will take but one memo, one recording of an invited speech, one email, a telephone recording, or maybe even a handful of disgruntled ex-employees with some personal notes (remember the Veterans who “served with” John Kerry?) to provide a solitary example of Mitt making a major decision for Bain during his leave…and Mitt’s credibility will be decimated.
And worst of all for Mitt, there is a huge incentive to be the first news organization to find it.
The race is on!