So the new guy in charge of reforming the accounting industry sat on the board of a company now being investigated for fraud, and when that company's outside auditors complained about accounting irregularities, he voted to fire them. This is just peachy.
Why don't we add Ken Lay and Bernie Ebbers to the new accounting-oversight board as well?
It's not as though it isn't already painfully clear the Bush administration is both opposing and undermining all efforts to clean up corporate corruption, but do they really have to make a mockery of them as well?
The headline in The Wall Street Journal read, "Criticism Mounts as Pitt Launches Probe of Himself." SEC chairman Harvey Pitt has just made himself immortal: Pitt, inventor of the self-probe. It sounds painfully rectal.
This is obscene. Where are the big fish on this one? We used to say of Bush in Texas, "He doesn't care about the topwaters." The topwaters are the bitty fish that swim on the top of the pond; Bush always worked for the big fish that swim underneath.
Well, big fish, this is about your money. This is about your getting ripped off by institutionalized corporate corruption, and it cannot be cured by political spin. SEC chairman Harvey Pitt cannot pretend to be a reformer and then immediately cave in to Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), who represents the financial industry.
The painful matter of Oxley's campaign contributions from the financial industry has already been reported, but The New York Times has added an amusing itinerary of the junkets taken by the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. The honorable chairman, his wife, his chief of staff, and committee staff have been transported to Cape Cod, Edinburgh, Stockholm, Venice, New York, New Orleans, Boca Raton, Tucson, and Belgium, meals and hotels included.
Of course, Oxley has reimbursed his generous hosts from his very own PAC, 68 percent of which comes from ... his hosts' very own PACs. But only 56 percent of his contributions from individuals come from employees and lobbyists for financial services.
This is not a case of "everybody does it." When Henry B. Gonzalez was chairman of the House banking committee, he refused to take a nickel from bankers.
People, our politics is a pigsty.
And why would President Bush and Vice President Cheney not want to clean up corporate sleaze? Because they are corporate sleaze. The latest chapter in the unfolding saga of Harken Energy, which is Enron writ small, was unearthed by The Boston Globe. One week before Bush sold $848,000 of his Harken stock, Harken's board members were warned by their lawyers that they would face possible insider-trading charges if they unloaded their shares. The memo was not received by the SEC until the day after the agency (run by a friend of Bush's daddy's) decided not to bring insider-trading charges against Bush.
Let me point something out about the state of ethics in this country. Judge William Webster, the man who never should have been named to the accounting-oversight board, is by all accounts a man of "unimpeachable integrity," as they always say in Washington when they're being pompous. A man with solid-gold Establishment credentials, known to all the power players and, consequently, above question.
Above question by whom? I'm sure that when Webster was on the audit committee of U.S. Technologies and decided to fire the accountants who were questioning the books, he did not think to himself, "Holy cow, we've got to cover up dishonest transactions before anyone finds out." He probably thought the auditors were pettifogging about practices "everyone does" and that different auditors, say, Arthur Andersen, wouldn't be so picky. After all, "our kind of people" don't do dishonorable things. But the net effect for the company was still disaster and ruin.
Webster may or may not see that he has some responsibility for that -- it is not easy for any of us, especially those with a strong sense of our own rectitude, to acknowledge error, much less base motive. But what kind of blind arrogance does it take to then accept a post overseeing the "reform" of the accounting industry? What kind of blind arrogance does it take for the accounting industry, with its record, to think it has a right to choose its own oversight board? What kind of blind arrogance did it take for Michael Oxley to call Harvey Pitt and pressure him to name Webster?
Another word for all this is denial. Gee Dubya Bush to this good day thinks he did nothing wrong by unloading his Harken stock when he knew the company was going under. He's not the kind of guy who would ever swipe five dollars out of a till just because he had the chance. There's a difference, you see, between a business decision and dishonesty. You do see that, don't you?
Molly Ivins writes for Creator's Syndicate and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.