It’s awfully tough to be Mr. Corporate Responsibility after you have profited from the actions of an irresponsible corporation that engaged in a shady deal. George W. Bush is finding that out, for as he tries desperately to stay ahead of the assorted corporate scandals, his own past as a failed oil man has emerged as an issue for reporters, columnists, and the cable-news crowd. What’s drawn the most attention is Bush’s handling of his 1990 Harken stock deal. Much of that story was public during the presidential election of 2000 (and it had been a minor issue when Bush first ran for governor of Texas in 1994). But two years ago, few seemed to care that Bush had made a bundle through his association with an oil company that employed phony accounting, that he benefited by selling shares in this troubled company (in which he happened to be a director) before these problems became known publicly, and that he failed to meet the federal deadline for disclosing this stock dump (as well as several others).
Now, reporters jump on any new factoid they can unearth. A few days ago, it was reported Bush had received a “flash report” in early June 1990–sixteen days before he sold his Harken holdings–that might have indicated the company was facing a huge loss. The White House says Bush believed the company was going to lose $9 million that quarter–not $23 million, as the losses turned out to be. The latest news, courtesy of Associated Press, is that Bush signed a “lockup” letter on April 3, 1990, pledging not to sell his Harken stock for six months after a proposed public stock offering. Yet two months later, he cashed out his Harken shares for nearly $850,000–a transaction that bolstered his financial position at a crucial time, for he had to cover a loan he earlier used to purchase the Texas Ranger baseball team.
With the public offering unconsummated at that point, perhaps Bush had a loophole to slide through. But here’s another question: who bought his Harken securities? Supposedly, an institutional investor that has not been identified. The White House maintains it is in no position to release the minutes of Harken board meetings from this period, but it has not explained what prevents Bush from publicly requesting that Harken disclose these records or that the institution that purchased his stock identify itself.
At the end of two weeks of Harken-ish news (and don’t forget Vice President Dick Cheney’s troubles, as Halliburton, the company he once chaired, faces investigation for accounting irregularities), conservative journalist William Kristol was left saying (hoping?) it was unlikely Bush would suffer political repercussions, for the recent details did not prove the Harken deal was illegal. (Remember when conservatives scoffed at an it-wasn’t-illegal standard for the president?)