Mitt’s “retroactive" escape

A top Romney aide unwittingly acknowledges a vast gray area that the candidate pretends doesn’t exist

Published July 16, 2012 11:29AM (EDT)

Without a doubt, the quote of the weekend was provided by Ed Gillespie, one of Mitt Romney’s top advisors, who tried to explain the candidate’s departure from Bain Capital by noting that he’d “retired retroactively.”

The mockery was immediate and intense on Twitter, even though Gillespie wasn’t technically breaking any new ground. “Retroactive” is actually the correct way to characterize Romney’s retirement from Bain, the result of a 2002 severance agreement that declared February 1999 to be the date of his departure.

Politically, though, Gillespie’s phraseology is problematic for two reasons. One is just the way it sounds – slippery and comically legalistic, sort of like Bill Clinton expounding on the meaning of the word "is," or John Kerry explaining how he "actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” To the extent the line gets repeated in the days and weeks ahead, it could encourage casual voters who know little or nothing of the Bain story to assume that Romney is trying to cover his tracks for something embarrassing.

The bigger problem is that Gillespie’s full comment draws further attention to an enormous gray area that Romney is pretending doesn’t exist. For a decade, the official Romney line, which he repeated in a CBS interview Friday night, has been that “I had no role whatsoever in the management of Bain Capital after February of 1999.” But here’s what Gillespie said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday:

You know there may have been a thought at the time that it could be part time. It was not part time. The Olympics was in a shambles. He took a leave of absence and in fact, Candy, ended up not going back at all and retired retroactively to February 1999 as a result.

Gillespie is basically acknowledging that for some of the time between February 1999, when Romney stepped away from his day-to-day role at Bain to head up the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, and the 2002 date when he actually reached a severance agreement with Bain, Romney attempted to keep a hand in Bain’s activities. As you can tell, Gillespie is doing his best to make it sound like Romney’s part-time Bain engagement was barely a blip on that timeline, but all sorts of information has come to light that suggests it was more than that:

  • As the Boston Globe reported last week, Romney was listed on SEC documents as Bain’s president, CEO, chairman and sole shareholder for years after his 1999 “retroactive retirement” date.
  • A February 12, 1999, Boston Herald report on Romney taking the Olympic post noted that “he will stay on as a part-timer with Bain, providing input on investment and key personnel decisions.”
  • A July 1999 Bain press release listed Romney as CEO and said he’s "on a part-time leave of absence to head the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee." Romney himself is quoted in the release signaling his approval of a new venture launched by two Bain employees.
  • In a November 2000 interview with the Globe, Ann Romney indicated that her husband remained involved with Bain, just not on a full-time basis.
  • A 2002 Globe story quoted Marc Wolpow, a Bain employee, saying that “I reported directly to Mitt Romney” while Romney was in Utah and that “you can't be CEO of Bain Capital and say, 'I really don't know what my guys were doing.’”
  • Upon returning to Massachusetts to run for governor in 2002, Romney told the state’s ballot law commission – which was determining whether he met the residency – that he’d left Bain in 1999 “on the basis of a leave of absence, indicating that I, by virtue of that title, would return at the end of the Olympics to my employment at Bain Capital, but subsequently decided not to do so and entered into a departure agreement with my former partners.”

The reason all of this matters is that Romney doesn’t want to be held responsible for some of Bain’s actions between 1999 and 2002 – in particular, the closure of a Kansas City steel plant, which cost 700 workers their jobs, and investments of firms that specialized in offshoring. By claiming he had zero involvement with Bain during his Olympic years, Romney can argue that Democrats are unfairly smearing him by bringing up anything that Bain did in that period.

But as I wrote Friday, Romney’s line is very hard to believe, since he’d taken previous leaves of absence from Bain before accepting the Olympic gig in ’99 and because for most of his Salt Lake tenure, there was no reason to suspect he’d have any immediate political opportunities when the games were over.

All of the available information suggests the road to Romney retroactive retirement didn’t really begin until the middle of 2001. That’s when Romney wrote a curious letter to the Salt Lake Tribune, telling the paper he didn’t want to be identified as pro-choice on abortion. It was obvious what Romney was up to: He’d run as a passionate abortion-rights supporter in Massachusetts in 1994, but with Acting Gov. Jane Swift seemingly settling into her job there, it looked like Romney would have no opening to run for office in the Bay State in 2002. So he was turning his attention to Utah, where it was becoming clear that Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt wouldn’t be running again in 2004 – and where a pro-choice position would make Romney DOA at the all-important state GOP convention.

A few weeks after Romney wrote that letter, he publicly announced that he’d decided not to return to Bain at the conclusion of the Olympics and that he would instead explore his political options in Utah and Massachusetts or work with a nonprofit foundation. And a few months after that, Swift’s standing in Massachusetts collapsed, clearing the way for Romney to triumphantly return to the state after the closing ceremonies, push Swift out of the way, and claim the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination without opposition.

It was in this time, presumably, that Romney’s retroactive retirement was negotiated. There’s a difference between how Romney and Bain characterized their relationship during his first few years in Utah and his final nine months running the Olympics. It suggests that for most of his time in Utah, Romney was planning to return to Bain. And if he was planning to come back, it’s not unreasonable to suspect he maintained some awareness of and involvement in his firm’s activities.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

MORE FROM Steve Kornacki

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Opening Shot