Questions about Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital have suddenly spiraled into a bigger question that President Obama's campaign is stoking: Did the candidate commit a crime by making false statements on SEC forms?
There's no evidence that Romney had a role in business meetings at Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he started, in the years after he formally left to run the Olympics.
But a Boston Globe report today said Romney remained in charge at Bain for three years longer than he has said. Romney originally said he left in 1999, though the SEC documents list him as the "sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer, and president" until 2002.
The Obama campaign seized on the report and suggested that Romney broke the law by not being truthful on the forms, if he truly left the company in 1999. Stephanie Cutter, a deputy campaign manager, said Romney either misrepresented his position to the SEC, or he misrepresented his position to the public. The first one is a felony.
Asked whether the Obama campaign was accusing Romney of breaking the law, the campaign wouldn't say. But campaign lawyer Bob Bauer said in a statement:
"Romney and Bain claim that he was not involved with Bain, but Bain and its portfolio companies in their required filings under the Securities Exchange Act continuously certified to the Securities and Exchange Commission say precisely the opposite-asserting without qualification that he was a controlling person, fully in charge of Bain, under the Federal securities law. Under normal circumstances, the question of the truth of this representation would result in an investigation by the SEC into possible criminal, as well as civil, violations of the law."
Robert Heim, a lawyer with the SEC from 1993 to 1999, said the confusion could "absolutely" be a problem for Romney.
"I think there is a sharp conflict between what Mitt Romney was saying his role was at Bain during his campaign appearances and what the SEC form that was filed describes his role as," he said. "Certainly there can be legal consequences if the form that was filed with the SEC was inaccurate in any way."
"There could be legal issues associated with his campaign forms with the FEC," Heim added. "If Mitt Romney, in addition to making those statements on the campaign trail, also filed them with the Federal Election Committee, there could potentially be legal issues with his campaign finance disclosures into his employment background."
In a statement, Romney's campaign said the Obama campaign's insinuation was off base.
"President Obama's campaign hit a new low today when one of its senior advisers made a reckless and unsubstantiated charge to reporters about Mitt Romney that was so over the top that it calls into question the integrity of their entire campaign," said Matt Rhoades, Romney's campaign manager. "President Obama ought to apologize for the out-of-control behavior of his staff, which demeans the office he holds. Campaigns are supposed to be hard fought, but statements like those made by Stephanie Cutter belittle the process and the candidate on whose behalf she works."
The Obama campaign didn't provide evidence that Romney took part in business meetings or calls at Bain after 1999; the implication that Romney was in charge at Bain appears to rest on his name being listed on SEC documents.
Asked by a reporter whether the Obama campaign has proof that Romney had business talks with people at Bain between 1999 and 2002, Bauer said cryptically, "I would stay very much tuned on that." Fortune magazine reported that it had looked at documents that support Romney, showing that Romney isn't listed among Bain Capital Venture Fund's "key investment professionals" during the years in question, and that he didn't have "operational input at Bain." The magazine said that is "different from no longer having legal or financial ties to the firm."
CNN published a document from 2001 showing Romney listed as the president and the director of Bain.