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Once upon a time — just a few weeks ago, in fact — the story of Bain Capital was a useful and easy one for Mitt Romney. His years running the private equity firm had taught him how jobs are created, a skill he would bring with him to the White House.
And what of the negative consequences from Bain's involvement in various companies? The layoffs? The plant closings? The outsourcing of jobs to China?
As Romney explained it, these weren't an issue. Those things happened after he had left Bain to go salvage the Salt Lake City Olympics in February 1999. It's the story he's stuck to since he ran for Massachusetts governor in 2002, and it is reflected in his financial disclosure forms he filed running for president in both 2008 and this year.
Over the past 48 hours, that narrative has begun straining at the seams, as the Boston Globe published an article highlighting Securities and Exchange Commission and state of Massachusetts filings stating that Romney remained CEO of Bain Capital through 2002, receiving at least $100,000 in wages for his work. The Globe piece grabbed headlines, but it was built on the work of both Mother Jones and Talking Points Memo, two liberal publications, earlier this month.
The Romney campaign downplays the revelations, calling the filings "technicalities" that do not change the actual facts of his departure from the company he founded in 1984. Indeed, securities lawyers say this sort of filing is exactly what might be expected from a company owner no longer in charge of management.
This is also the approach Romney himself took Friday afternoon, in an unprecedented series of one-on-one interviews with all five major television networks.
"I had no role whatsoever in the management of Bain Capital after 1999," Romney told CNN. "There's nothing wrong with being associated with Bain Capital, of course. But the truth is that I left any role at Bain Capital in February of 1999."
Yet as more media outlets dug into the question, and the more documents came to light, the muddier things have become.
Among the curious tidbits:
-- In June 2002, facing a Democratic challenge to his Massachusetts residency, Romney testified that he made numerous business trips from Utah back to Boston to attend board meetings for various Bain-controlled companies, including Staples and Lifelike dolls. He also testified that when he left Bain in 1999, he had fully intended to return after the Olympics and saw his departure as a "leave of absence." This was reported first by The Huffington Post on Thursday.
-- That take is reinforced by an August 2001 interview Romney gave to Bloomberg, in which he stated he was leaving Bain and would "look for political opportunities in Massachusetts and Utah."
-- A Bloomberg report Friday showed another SEC filing in 2002 reflecting Romney as a managing partner in Bain Capital Investors LLC. This is later than the 2001 filing cited by Talking Points Memo on Tuesday showing Romney as the CEO and sole shareholder of Bain Capital Inc.
-- In a May 2003 financial disclosure filing as governor of Massachusetts, Romney described himself as an "executive" earning more than $100,000 in salary from both Bain Capital Inc. and Bain Capital LLC in 2002. And as NPR reported Thursday, while the 25-page filing specifies that Romney "played no active role in the management" of four Bain-related partnerships, no such footnote was attached to his entry for Bain Capital Inc. or Bain Capital LLC.
-- And in a related development, Mother Jones reported Thursday that in 1998, Bain affiliate Brookside Capital Partners, still unequivocally led by Romney, had invested millions in a Chinese company that depended on outsourcing by American firms.
What all this means outside the New York-Washington media corridor is still uncertain. The Romney camp, backed up by a number of experts in the world of corporate governance, argues that keeping Romney on the SEC forms as the CEO even after he had left for the Olympics was not only technically correct but legally necessary.
On the other hand, these documents put Romney in the position of having to explain that official, signed filings he provided to regulators really did not reflect reality — not the ideal situation for anyone running for public office, let alone president.
In the end, it will very likely come down to whether the issue can be boiled down to a 30-second ad ("Mitt Romney says he left Bain Capital when it was closing down factories. But this official filing says otherwise. Which one do you believe?"); if the Obama campaign is willing to spend enough to put that ad on enough television sets in the swing states; and if the campaign believes the benefits of such ads outweigh the risks of coming across as too negative.
If the past months are any indicator, the answer to these questions is probably yes.
S.V. Dáte is the NPR Washington Desk's congressional editor.
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