Mitt Romney loves to tout himself as someone whose "real world" experience will fix the American economy and create jobs.
But three substantial pieces in major U.S. newspapers in the last few weeks show a man who was anything but a job creator or someone who lifted others while lifting himself. Instead, they paint a picture of a successful businessman who used calculated greed and questionable moral judgment to build his empire at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded and led until 1999.
While these charges have been leveled before, much of the carefully documented evidence in these articles is new. A friend and colleague, Roger House, brought them to my attention recently.
"Do you think these stories... will impact media/public perceptions?" he asked in an accompanying e-mail. More on that later. Let's start with the evidence.
The first article, "Romney's Bain Capital Invested in Companies That Moved Jobs Overseas," appeared in The Washington Post on June 21. Its storyline is the clearest of the three: Mitt Romney made a lot of money by investing in companies that shipped American jobs overseas. Here is how reporter Tom Hamburger began:
Mitt Romney's financial company, Bain Capital, invested in a series of firms that specialized in relocating jobs done by American workers to new facilities in low-wage countries like China and India.
During the nearly 15 years that Romney was actively involved in running Bain... it owned companies that were pioneers in the practice of shipping work from the United States to overseas call centers and factories making computer components, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Romney campaign officials declined comment on the article, though they later sought to have it retracted (The Post stood by its reporting.)
The piece, among other things, notes how outsourcing practices have killed many American jobs even as they have kept costs lower. It also notes that Bain's "foray into outsourcing" began in 1993, six years before Romney left the company, which, The Post notes, "he ran... with a proprietor's zeal and attention to detail."
Job creator? Yes. Overseas.
The second article, "Companies' Ills Did Not Harm Romney's Firm," ran June 22 in The New York Times. It's tougher sledding for the casual reader. In a nutshell, however, it makes a strong case that Bain Capital took in lucrative sums of money from firms it controlled even while they were foundering and shedding hundreds of jobs.
Of the more than 40 United States-based companies Bain controlled during the 15 years Romney served at its helm, at least seven eventually filed for bankrupcy, note reporters Michael Luo and Julie Creswell. They write:
Mr. Romney's experience at Bain is at the heart of his case for the presidency. He has repeatedly promoted his years working in the "real economy," arguing that his success turning around troubled companies and helping to start new ones, producing jobs in the process, has prepared him to revive the country's economy. He has fended off attacks about job losses at companies Bain owned, saying, "Sometimes investments don't work and you're not successful." But an examination of what happened when companies Bain controlled wound up in bankruptcy highlights just how different Bain and other private equity firms are from typical denizens of the real economy, from mom-and-pop stores to bootstrapping entrepreneurial ventures. Bain structured deals so that it was difficult for the firm and its executives to ever really lose, even if practically everyone else involved with the company that Bain owned did ...
Bain denied this, but the article's evidence is compelling. Perhaps Romney's campaign motto should be, "I'll win even when you lose."
The third article is titled "Mitt and the Junk Bond King." It appeared in June 24th's Boston Globe.
The story, by Michael Kranish and Beth Healy, goes like this. In 1988, when junk bond king Michael Milken was already under investigation for illegal practices that would soon land him in jail, Mitt Romney set out to find $300 million to finance a deal. His plan was to purchase two department store companies -- one small and profitable, the other struggling -- and to merge them.
Romney and Bain stood to make a bundle and, "so it was," notes The Globe "that Romney decided to rely on a man [Milken] and a company in the thick of one of the most intensive investigations ever undertaken by the Securities and Exchange Commission."
That company was Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. Writes The Globe:
Drexel's financing for Bain succeeded. Romney distanced himself from the legal case, noting that his deal had nothing to do with the charges against Milken and Drexel.
With the deal concluded, Bain Capital merged the department store chains ...
But should Mitt Romney, possibly our next president, have entered into a business deal with one of the greatest shysters of American business history, a man chronicled in James B. Stewart's marvelous book, "Den of Thieves?" Does the American public care?
Which leads me back to my friend Roger's original question: Will stories like these have an impact on public perception of the candidate?
Sadly, I believe it is unlikely. As long as we accept a political world of unlimited and secretive campaign contributions, any American election can be bought and sold. And it will take a sustained public outcry for this situation to change.
So far, the American public has shrugged at Romney's begrudging release of just two years of tax returns. If Americans care deeply about Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that allows unidentified billionaires to funnel tens of millions to indecipherable interest groups, I haven't noticed. No one is marching in the streets.
Until Americans stand up more strongly and vociferously to the big-money moguls increasingly calling the shots in all branches of government, it will be hard for carefully reported facts to be heard over the crescendo of propaganda that will fill this presidential campaign with more noise and distortion than any other in our history.
I hope I'm wrong. And I'm glad these reporters are trying to unearth the truth.