Mitt's Million-Dollar Question: What's Romney Really Worth?

Why is it so hard to figure how much Romney is worth?

July 6, 2012 -- Secrecy is a trait that Mitt Romney has struggled unsuccessfully to shake this year. It doesn't help that when the press asks about muddled reports of his financial holdings, his campaign doesn't clear things up.

In fact, the Romney campaign is now apparently using canned, blanket statements to cover all questions about the candidate's money.

Responding to stories by The Associated Press and Vanity Fair about Romney's offshore accounts in Bermuda, Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg issued this statement:

"President Obama's attacks on Mitt Romney have been proven false time and again. As job growth slows, manufacturing activity stalls, and our economy continues to sputter, President Obama knows he can't make a legitimate argument for another term in office, so instead he is trying to tear down his opponent. This is just the latest example of President Obama and his political machine saying or doing anything to distract from his abysmal record over the last four years."

The statement doesn't say why the "attacks" are false or anything about the AP and Vanity Fair stories. And another Romney spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, used precisely the same statement, word for word, in response to an interview that Obama strategist David Axelrod gave to ABC News, in which he said Romney is "the most secretive candidate" since Richard Nixon.

Neither spokeswoman responded when asked why they used the same statement.

The reports have helped Democrats, who have waged a fairly successful campaign to talk about Romney's history and character rather than the sputtering economy, which is Obama's weakest point in the race. In the interview with ABC News, Axelrod said Romney "believes in keeping the public in the dark" and questioned why the candidate transferred a company in Bermuda to his wife the day before he became governor of Massachusetts in 2003.

"Why did you not want that on your disclosure form?" Axelrod asked rhetorically.

The cards in the transparency deck stack up against Romney pretty hard, even if Obama has struggled himself to be as open in the White House as he promised. Unlike Obama, Romney refuses to disclose the identities of his top campaign money bundlers; he also won't release his tax returns beyond his 2010 forms, which he did reluctantly; and he routinely draws criticism for clearing the computer hard drives when he left the Massachusetts governor's office.

Romney is estimated to be worth $250 million, but the latest news reports of his offshore accounts suggest that he's worth more. The public, however, has no way of knowing.

Financial disclosure forms weren't meant to detail a candidate's wealth, but rather to determine whether a conflict of interest would emerge were that person to hold public office, said Meredith McGehee, the policy director at the Campaign Legal Center.

"No one even knew what a hedge fund was when the forms were designed," she said.

Romney didn't put some of the accounts in question on his previous public filings, though the 2010 tax return he released under pressure revealed that a Bermuda company, Sankaty High Yield Asset Investors Ltd., is "wholly owned by W. Mitt Romney" according to government documents.

The AP wrote that while he was never cited for an improper filing, "Romney's limited disclosures deprive the public of an accurate depiction of his wealth and a clear understanding of how his assets are handled and taxed, according to experts in private equity, tax and campaign finance law."

Vanity Fair was harsher. "While the Romneys' spokespeople insist that the couple has paid all the taxes required by law, investments in tax havens such as Bermuda raise many questions, because they are in 'jurisdictions where there is virtually no tax and virtually no compliance,' as one Miami-based offshore lawyer put it," wrote Nicholas Shaxson.

Obama himself hasn't been as fierce in criticizing Romney's holdings, though at a campaign rally on Thursday, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland introduced the president by teeing off on the reports.

"Mitt Romney is betting his resources in the Cayman Islands, in Bermuda, in Switzerland and God only knows where else he is putting his resources," Strickland said. "Now, my friends, he conveniently has decided that he will not release his income tax returns. Doesn't it make you wonder what Mitt Romney is trying to hide from the American people?"

McGehee said that while efforts to determine a candidate's wealth are clearly political (nobody wants to be an out-of-touch rich guy), having a full understanding of a would-be president's financial background is good policy.

For now, the rules don't require candidates to tell the public everything. "You can have disclosure without having meaningful transparency," McGehee said.