SYNOPSIS: The Bush accounting scandal saga continues . . .
The current crisis in American capitalism isn't just about the specific details — about tricky accounting, stock options, loans to executives, and so on. It's about the way the game has been rigged on behalf of insiders.
And the Bush administration is full of such insiders. That's why President Bush cannot get away with merely rhetorical opposition to executive wrongdoers. To give the most extreme example (so far), how can we take his moralizing seriously when Thomas White — whose division of Enron generated $500 million in phony profits, and who sold $12 million in stock just before the company collapsed — is still secretary of the Army?
Yet everything Mr. Bush has said and done lately shows that he doesn't get it. Asked about the Aloha Petroleum deal at his former company Harken Energy — in which big profits were recorded on a sale that was paid for by the company itself, a transaction that obviously had no meaning except as a way to inflate reported earnings — he responded, "There was an honest difference of opinion. . . . sometimes things aren't exactly black-and-white when it comes to accounting procedures."
And he still opposes both reforms that would reduce the incentives for corporate scams, such as requiring companies to count executive stock options against profits, and reforms that would make it harder to carry out such scams, such as not allowing accountants to take consulting fees from the same firms they audit.
The closest thing to a substantive proposal in Mr. Bush's tough-talking, nearly content-free speech on Tuesday was his call for extra punishment for executives convicted of fraud. But that's an empty threat. In reality, top executives rarely get charged with crimes; not a single indictment has yet been brought in the Enron affair, and even "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap, a serial book-cooker, faces only a civil suit. And they almost never get convicted. Accounting issues are technical enough to confuse many juries; expensive lawyers make the most of that confusion; and if all else fails, big-name executives have friends in high places who protect them.
In this as in so much of the corporate governance issue, the current wave of scandal is prefigured by President Bush's own history.
An aside: Some pundits have tried to dismiss questions about Mr. Bush's business career as unfair — it was long ago, and hence irrelevant. Yet many of these same pundits thought it was perfectly appropriate to spend seven years and $70 million investigating a failed land deal that was even further in Bill Clinton's past. And if they want something more recent, how about reporting on the story of Mr. Bush's extraordinarily lucrative investment in the Texas Rangers, which became so profitable because of a highly incestuous web of public policy and private deals? As in the case of Harken, no hard work is necessary; Joe Conason laid it all out in Harper's almost two years ago.
But the Harken story still has more to teach us, because the S.E.C. investigation into Mr. Bush's stock sale is a perfect illustration of why his tough talk won't scare well-connected malefactors.
Mr. Bush claims that he was "vetted" by the S.E.C. In fact, the agency's investigation was peculiarly perfunctory. It somehow decided that Mr. Bush's perfectly timed stock sale did not reflect inside information without interviewing him, or any other members of Harken's board. Maybe top officials at the S.E.C. felt they already knew enough about Mr. Bush: his father, the president, had appointed a good friend as S.E.C. chairman. And the general counsel, who would normally make decisions about legal action, had previously been George W. Bush's personal lawyer — he negotiated the purchase of the Texas Rangers. I am not making this up.
Most corporate wrongdoers won't be quite as well connected as the young Mr. Bush; but like him, they will expect, and probably receive, kid-glove treatment. In an interesting parallel, today's S.E.C., which claims to be investigating the highly questionable accounting at Halliburton that turned a loss into a reported profit, has yet to interview the C.E.O. at the time — Dick Cheney.
The bottom line is that in the last week any hopes you might have had that Mr. Bush would make a break from his past and champion desperately needed corporate reform have been dashed. Mr. Bush is not a real reformer; he just plays one on TV.
Originally published in The New York Times, 7.12.02