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New Questions About Timing Of Romney's Bain Departure

Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign stop in Roxbury, Mass., on Thursday.
Evan Vucci
Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign stop in Roxbury, Mass., on Thursday.

The Boston Globe reported new details Friday about Mitt Romney's lingering ties to his private equity firm, Bain Capital, after he left Boston to run the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

The Globe says Romney was "not merely an absentee owner" between 1999 and 2002, despite financial disclosure forms that say he "has not been involved in the operations" of Bain Capital "in any way," for more than a dozen years.

Writes the Globe:

"Interviews with a half-dozen of Romney's former partners and associates, as well as public records, show that he was not merely an absentee owner during this period. He signed dozens of company documents, including filings with regulators on a vast array of Bain's investment entities. And he drove the complex negotiations over his own large severance package, a deal that was critical to the firm's future without him, according to his former associates."

The Fact Checker column in The Washington Post had previously accused the Obama campaign of "blowing smoke" about Romney's role at Bain. Friday, the Post softened its position, citing what it called "ambiguity" about Romney's position.

It's been a week since Romney's TV blitzkrieg, in which he tried to put to rest the questions about his role at Bain Capital.

Securities and Exchange Commission documents filed as late as 2002 list Romney as the CEO. But in interviews with CNN and others, Romney insisted he was not responsible for Bain's decision-making once he left to run the Olympics.

"There's a difference between being a shareholder — an owner, if you will — and being a person who's running an entity," Romney said last Friday to CNN's Jim Acosta. "And I had no role whatsoever in managing Bain Capital after February of 1999."

The Obama campaign has scoffed at this distinction, producing a Web video in which ordinary citizens raise their eyebrows at Romney's legalese.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who studies political communication at The Annenberg Public Policy Center, says it's no wonder people are confused.

"When a candidate is speaking in the technical language of a specific kind of business enterprise, the public is going to have difficulty understanding what he's saying," she says.

Romney's challenge is made harder because he didn't officially retire from Bain until 2001. That was after negotiating a severance package that continued to pay Romney for a decade after he'd left for Salt Lake City.

"When one uses a word such as retroactive retirement, or when one is explaining how one continues to get income, even though one is not actually managing day-to-day operations, one is dealing in a universe that most of us have no experience with," Jamieson says.

In contrast, President Obama's argument about Romney is straightforward.

"I think most Americans figure if you're the chairman, CEO and president of a company, that you are responsible for what that company does," Obama said last week in an interview with Washington, D.C., television station WJLA.

Obama has been criticizing Romney over Bain Capital's investments in companies The Washington Post said helped ship jobs overseas. That outsourcing charge coincides with questions about when Romney stepped down from Bain. But the timing may not be that important, since some of the investments in outsourcing firms were clearly made while Romney was still in charge.

"Nobody really cares when he left. That's not what's relevant. And that's not what's gaining traction," says Frank Luntz, a Republican messaging guru.

"What is having somewhat of an impact, and I've seen it myself in the research I've done in Ohio," he says, "is a doubt, whether he connects to those who are economically challenged, who have already decided the Obama administration hasn't delivered for them over the last 3 1/2 years, but now aren't certain whether Mitt Romney will deliver for them over the next four years."

Romney cites his business experience as one of his key qualifications for the White House. Jamieson says the Obama campaign is trying to neutralize that argument by casting doubt on Bain's track record and forcing Romney to distance himself from the firm.

"By virtue of positioning Bain as a central element in his resume, it's becoming an indictment," Jamieson says.

If there's any lasting impact of this timing debate, that could be it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.