Despite an easily distracted news media and a weekend for the story to cool off, questions about Mitt Romney’s tenure are driving the day again at the start of a new week, and it may only be getting worse for Romney. If you just tuned in, the issue is how long Romney stayed at Bain Capital — he said he left in 1999, but government documents and his own testimony show he stayed on in some capacity until 2002, at which point his campaign claims he “retroactively retired.” Essentially, the campaign is saying that while Romney technically stayed on as CEO and owner for over two years after leaving to run the Salt Lake City Olympics, he had no actual responsibility over the day-to-day operations of the company. That may be entirely true, but why bother staying on at all then?
Former Bain managing director Ed Conard, who worked with Romney at the company and has defended him since, provided an answer. He told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes yesterday that Romney stayed on for three years as CEO after 1999 so he would have more leverage to extract as much money as possible from the company while he was walking out the door. For over two years, Conard said, Romney and his partners negotiated how much money Romney would get for leaving the company. He wanted more; they wanted to give him less. Speaking as Romney, Conard explained the candidate’s position at the time: “’I created an incredibly valuable firm that’s making all you guys rich. You owe me.’ That’s the negotiation.” Conard explained that Romney stayed on as CEO “in part, yes, of course” to drive a harder bargain with the company.
Conard made a $1 million contribution to the super PAC supporting Mitt Romney, gave the maximum $2,500 to Romney’s primary campaign, and recently became famous for writing a book celebrating the virtue of the ultra-wealthy, so it’s unlikely that he would misrepresent the past in order to hurt Romney.
Romney’s departure time matters because some of the company’s least flattering moments, including the closure of a steel mill in Kansas City, occurred during those three years, when Romney has insisted he was gone and thus not responsible for Bain’s activities. He also submitted ethics forms saying he was not involved in any way with Bain after 1999.
On one hand, Conard’s version of events clears Romney of the most weighty accusations of misrepresentation; but on the other hand, the alibi is almost as bad as the alleged crime. According to Conard’s story, Romney would have none of the headaches he’s dealing with this week about his convoluted departure timeline had he simply left in 1999 and not been so concerned about squeezing as much money as possible from Bain. The story is reminiscent of the one about when Romney started Bain Capital, when he secured a escape clause for himself that guaranteed he could return to his old job at Bain & Co. if the new venture failed, meaning there was essentially zero risk for him personally. From the beginning, Chicago wanted to paint Romney as a real-life Gordon Gekko, the “Wall Street” antihero who declares, “Greed is good.” In Conard’s narrative, Romney seems to apply this maxim even to his former partners.