The elusive truth about Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital

Mitt Romney's time running Bain Capital has become the focus of charge and counter-charge, raising questions about campaign dishonesty and the candidates' own character as well as calls for apologies.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spoke in Houston on Tuesday.
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His time at Bain Capital seems to have become Mitt Romney’s “what did he know and when did he know it” moment.

To most voters, Mr. Romney’s years as a successful capitalist who became very wealthy is already an established plus or minus. When, exactly, he left the firm he began and ran makes little difference to them.

But in the hard-fisted world of presidential politics, it’s become the focus of charge and counter-charge – raising questions about campaign dishonesty and the candidates’ own character as well as calls for apologies.

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Friday, Romney blitzed through five TV interviews to charge that questions raised by the Obama campaign were "ridiculous … beneath the dignity of the presidency and of his campaign."

Still, the questions kept coming about when Romney left Bain Capital, a firm that helped create some jobs while axing others and sending some overseas.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee says he had nothing to do with running Bain after 1999, when he left Boston for Salt Lake City to rescue the scandal-plagued US Olympic organization. Others point to evidence that Romney had a hand in running Bain for the next few years – a politically crucial difference because that was the period when the firm was involved in some domestic job losses.

“Romney is named as one of two managing members of Bain Capital Investors LLC in annual reports filed in Massachusetts, as late as 2002, adding a new corporate entity to a growing number of Bain-related investments and funds that list the Republican presidential candidate as controlling the company three years after he said he left it,” Bloomberg News reported Friday. “Separate documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), reviewed by Bloomberg News, also show Romney in 2000 as the sole stockholder of Bain Capital Investors Inc.”

That may be true, Romney supporters reply, but it does not mean he played any part in running the firm’s day-to-day operations – including decisions that may have affected jobs in the United States.

The Boston Globe, which has led the way in reporting the story, noted Saturday that Romney’s account of when he left Bain has “evolved” over the years.

Until his run for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, the Globe reported, “Romney had characterized his departure from Bain Capital more as a ‘leave of absence’ in which he would be a ‘part-timer,’ and not as an absolute separation from the thriving business he built and solely owned.... Financial disclosure forms Romney filed in Massachusetts indicate he earned at least $100,000 as a Bain ‘executive’ in 2001 and 2002, separate from investment earnings.”

Some fact-checking organizations find little evidence that Romney played any direct role in cutting or outsourcing US jobs.

“None of the SEC filings show that Romney was anything but a passive, absentee owner during that time," FactCheck.org asserts. “It should not surprise anyone that Romney retained certain titles while he was working out the final disposition of his ownership, for example.”

That Bain under Romney’s command – he established the firm in 1984 – was a “pioneer” in outsourcing, as the Obama campaign charges, is only “half true,” according to PolitiFact.com’s “truth-o-meter.”

“Outsourcing was well established by the early 1990s, and firms were applying it in a variety of industrial areas,” says PolitiFact. “The Bain companies were among that group.”

But perceptions can be just as important as hard evidence in campaign politics, and critics say Romney’s image here illustrates a fetish for secrecy.

Romney also is under fire for not releasing more than he has of his personal income tax data.

During the Republican primaries and debates, it took pressure by Newt Gingrich and others to get Romney to release his tax returns for just two years.

That’s far fewer than the 23 years he provided Sen. John McCain in 2008 when Romney was being considered as Mr. McCain’s running mate. And as The Washington Post noted this week, “His father, George, released 12 years’ worth of tax returns when he ran for president in 1968, and other top-tier candidates have traditionally taken a similar approach.”

Will any of this make any difference?

The Obama campaign hopes it will as it continues to chip away with new TV ads and statements, and it may be having an effect.

The Pew Research Center reports that despite the stagnant economy and broad dissatisfaction with national conditions,President Obama holds “a significant lead” over Romney – 50 percent to 43 percent among registered voters nationwide.

“The latest national survey … finds that Romney has not seized the advantage as the candidate best able to improve the economy,” Pew reported this week. “In fact, he has lost ground on this issue over the past month.”

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