With Harvey Pitt, the Bush administration's chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, coming under increasing fire from Democrats, the media, and John McCain, various Republican staffers in the House and Senate have begun poring over the records of SEC actions during the Clinton Administration, when Wall Street Golden Boy Arthur Levitt chaired the commission that is now the focal point of furor after the collapses of such investor darlings as Enron, ImClone and WorldCom.
"Pitt is taking the heat, but all of these companies flourished and grew under the Clinton SEC's watch. If Democrats are going to try to pin the 'corporate greed' label on us, we want to have the ammo to throw it back in their faces," says a Republican staffer on the House Financial Services Committee.
There is internal debate among Republicans whether or not Levitt should be invited before House and Senate committees to outline how it was that companies like WorldCom and Global Crossing passed so easily through what little SEC oversight might actually have taken place.
Since leaving the SEC, Levitt has traveled the country and published extensively on the need for greater oversight of corporate America. The media have portrayed his time as SEC chair as that of a white knight battling against the evils of Wall Street excess and Republican attempts to de-regulate the securities industry. Some Republicans wonder if putting Levitt under a spotlight might not backfire, by making it appear that Republicans are simply trying to shift blame. "You can only blame the Clinton Administration so much," says a Republican Senate staffer working on the Finance Committee. "This might be one of those cases where we keep quiet to fight another day."
Others, though, want history righted, at least to their way of thinking. "Levitt has come out of these scandals unscathed, and it's irksome," says the House staffer. "Democrats worked hard to make sure many of these companies that are now in question got special consideration over at the SEC. And we weren't in charge back then. No one was paying attention then. Now, somehow it's all our fault."
Speaking of WorldCom, Senate minority leader Trent Lott was inundated with media phone calls last week asking whether or not he would remove from his "Mississippi Wall of Fame" Bernard Ebbers, former CEO of the telecommunications giant. Lott's Senate website features a number of Mississippians who have made it big in sports, business and the arts. Lott has told staffers he has no intention of removing Ebbers, but another Republican big shot with Mississippi roots is considering putting some distance between himself and the man from WorldCom.
Former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, mulling a run for the Mississippi governorship, is assessing how much political damage he might suffer due to his close relationship with Ebbers and WorldCom.
While WorldCom donated plenty of money to Democrats over the past two electoral cycles, Barbour cultivated his friendship with Ebbers and connection with WorldCom. "Knowing Haley, he'll figure out a way to turn this all into a positive," says a longtime acquaintance. "He has a talent for that. And apparently, so did Ebbers. Maybe it's a Mississippi thing."