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Why Romney's Bain story still doesn't add up, and why it matters

COMMENTARYDespite various attempts to "correct the record," the details of Romney's departure from Bain Capital are getting more—not less—hazy.


Despite various attempts to "correct the record," the details of Romney's departure from Bain Capital are getting more—not less—hazy. On Sunday, a senior Romney campaign adviser and a former Bain executive appeared on separate morning shows to offer their takes on how, when, and why Romney exited his private equity firm. But, as I noted at the time, their stories were seemingly inconsistent on at least one detail: whether or not Romney ever planned on returning to his leadership position at Bain.

Now, there is a way to reconcile these two stories. After all, Edward Conard, Bain's former managing director, did not explicitly say that Romney never intended to return. It's entirely possible that Romney left on a temporary leave of absence that turned into a planned permanent departure after a year or so (as Romney adviser Ed Gillespie claims), and that the two following years consisted of prolonged negotiations between Romney, the management committee, and other senior partners (as Conard claims). But if that's the case, it still seems odd that Conard would decline to mention the temporary leave of absence. Furthermore, it doesn't explain why the Romney campaign took so long to offer that relatively simple explanation.

The other possibility, which I think is the one New York Times reporter Nicholas Confessore is getting at here, is that Romney had intended to permanently transition from ownership of the company, but take only a temporary leave from management. Somewhere along the way, that changed, and he decided to give up both ownership and management for good. That's a rather convoluted explanation, but it does fit the facts of both Conard and Gillespie's stories. Too bad it doesn't resolve the ambiguities in earlier accounts of Romney's departure.

Nonetheless, that leaves with three possible theories for what, exactly, happened.

1.) Romney was always going to leave Bain Capital for good. That's the version of the story that Mitt Romney himself seemed to endorse up until Ed Gillespie said otherwise on Sunday. Turnaround, Romney's book about his experiences managing the Winter Olympics, includes a revealing passage about how he made the decision to leave Bain and move to Utah. "When I talked to my partners at Bain Capital," he writes, "I opined that it wouldn't make sense for me to come back to the company at the end of my tenure at SLOC [Salt Lake Organizing Committee] ... Three years is a long time and the firm would have changed. It wouldn't be fair to them."

Furthermore, Robert Garff—the chairman of the SLOC and a childhood friend of Romney's—has described Romney's departure from Bain in terms that make it sound very much like a premeditated and permanent career change. Here's what he told Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman for their book, The Real Romney: "Mitt wanted to leapfrog from the world of business to public service, and this was a perfect opportunity for him to propel himself into the national spotlight, which I believe was all part of his overarching plan of his life."

Of course, Gillespie's remarks on CNN would seem to undermine that theory. Which leads us to the next one.

2.) Romney's absence from Bain was originally supposed to be temporary. That's Gillespie's version of events, and it's one further backed up by a 1999 Bain press release (originally dug up by Daily Kos' Jed Lewison) that describes Romney as being on a "temporary leave of absence." But that version of events doesn't jive with Romney's own explanation of his reasoning—at least not the one given before the Boston Globe started reported on his SEC filings.

3.) Romney was trying to have it both ways. There's at least one theory that could explain all the discrepancies here. Maybe Romney always planned to transition to a career in public service, but he was hedging his bets in the private sector. If managing the Olympics worked out, he could ride a golden parachute from Bain into political office. If not, he could return to his corner office at the private equity firm and pretend that he had never planned on leaving.

Of course, that leaves open the question of his level of involvement in Bain's decision-making process during his temporary/not-temporary (depending on how things worked out) leave of absence. Both the Romney campaign and Conard firmly deny that he was involved in Bain's decisions during that time at all, though Conard was careful to note his own inability to "remember every single meeting." However, a "part-time leave of absence," as that press release read, doesn't sound totally disengaged. And even fishier is a passage from Ronald B. Scott's biography, Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, in which Scott describes the resolution to a spat between Jon Hunstman Sr. and 2002 Winter Olympics Organizing Committee CEO Mitt Romney:

Huntsman apologized for his stinging words and began singing Mitt's praises. Soon Hunstman's financial contributions to the games would resume. Two years later, with the games just a year off, Mitt seemed to extend his own form of an olive branch when Bain capital took a 30 percent ($600 million) minority stake in Hunstman Chemical.

Surely, even if Romney was detached from the day-to-day business of Bain, it is difficult to believe that his influence was never felt. Distant monarchs are still monarchs so long as they have the power to promote or destroy, and Romney's SEC filings still listed him as president, CEO and chairman. Power, even when not exercised, has its own sort of gravitational pull.

So maybe Romney was trying to have it both ways on both the duration of his tenure and his level of involvement. That would explain a lot, but it wouldn't necessarily explain why you should care. After all, the Obama campaign's coy allusions to criminality are unlikely to add up to much of substance. And it's not like the way that Bain Capital conducted its business during Romney's time in Utah was significantly different from how it conducted its business while he was in Massachusetts. Trying to wring every last dollar from a company when you're halfway out the door may be a little craven, but it's also understandable. Who wouldn't want to collect at least $100,000 a year for doing virtually nothing? Who doesn't kind of like the idea of power without accountability? (Though Romney was, of course, still legally accountable.)

If this was Romney's intention, it's less an indictment of him personally than a symbol of the systemic pettiness and hypocrisies of America's corporate elite. That's why this matters: because it reveals one reason why we should reject his ideology of corporate utopianism and the trickle-down society.