Bush vs. Corporate corruption

Posted: Jun 27, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush sat down privately with the nation's top business executives late last Thursday afternoon and gave them an earful about corporate ethics in what is being called America's second Gilded Age. It is a subject the president feels deeply about but so far has not addressed fully in public. So, his unscripted comments to the businessmen were not released. Will President Bush ever speak to the public definitively on what he considers corporate conduct that poisons the stock market and threatens the economy? "Stay tuned," responded one aide who shares his concern. A presidential address is planned after the Fourth of July, on grounds the country will not pay attention between now and the summer holiday if he tries to restore investor confidence. Nevertheless, as the G-8 summit began in Canada Wednesday, the president was rocked by the WorldCom accounting scandal -- calling it "outrageous" and pledging to "fully investigate." Bush until now has been restrained from expressing himself fully by words of caution inside and outside his administration. He is told presidential exhortation could worsen declining stock prices, while he contends corporate misbehavior is at the core of failing capital markets. In the president's silence, the U.S. government's voice has become low-level Justice Department aides mobilizing power to destroy the Arthur Andersen accounting firm. Word spread through Washington last week that Bush would speak out at a previously scheduled meeting with The Business Roundtable (BRT), large corporation CEOs who belong by invitation only. Typically in dealing with big business, the White House covered the proceedings with a veil of secrecy. The White House did not want to publicize the president's remarks, and left the account of Bush's admonitions about CEOs to a CEO: BRT Chairman John Dillon of International Paper. Dillon reported that Bush urged the business barons to "step up our focus on corporate governance" and "get out in front of this and make any corrections that are required." Dillon was defensive: "It bothers me immensely when people speak about, 'We don't trust CEOs,' and where that exists, we're going to fix it." Understandably, that message was buried in an Associated Press dispatch and ignored by major newspapers. Nor did the news media pay much attention a night earlier when Bush, at the end of a pep talk to a massive Republican fund-raiser, declared: "If you run a corporation in America, you're responsible for being honest on your balance sheet with all your assets and liabilities." Republicans who paid up to $250,000 apiece to be with the president that night responded with restrained applause. Such brief interjections by Bush throughout the year are in lieu of a full-scale treatment that would clearly align him against CEO greed. Recently when asked over dinner by a group of business executives whether the president would speak out on this issue, a top administration economic adviser replied that there simply was no time on Bush's crowded schedule -- a palpably implausible explanation. Actually, many administration officials who feel that Bush's intervention could be hazardous to the economy have pressed against such a speech. In the absence of a ringing statement by Bush, his administration's anti-corruption message has been carried by young career lawyers on the Justice Department's Enron Task Force. Overriding efforts by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to save Arthur Andersen, the Justice Department destroyed the old accounting firm by indicting it. When a jury voted a conviction June 15 via a bizarre course of reasoning, Justice lawyers looked giddy with joy. "We're not finished with Arthur Andersen," vowed task force chief Leslie Caldwell. There is not much public purpose in picking over the company's bones, and key members of Congress from both parties agree that the government's first target should have been Enron instead of Andersen. Bush sees the problem as much bigger than Enron or Andersen. In private, the president loses his temper when he talks about betrayal by such CEOs as Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski, the multi-millionaire who cheated in avoiding sales taxes on fine art. Some aides still contend that Bush's own words would spook markets and that his good friend, Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans, should do the admonishing. But in his heart, George W. Bush seems to understand that only he can restore trust.