President Bush stood before an elite corps of Wall Street executives yesterday and vowed to “end the days of cooking the books, shading the truth, and breaking our laws.” Bush’s speech came on the crest of a wave of corporate scandals, some of which reach as high up as the White House. The speech was intended to distance the Administration from these scandals as well as to quell the fears of jittery investors.
But critics said the Bush reform plan was more rhetoric than substance, a watered-down version of Democratic proposals circulating in Congress. Wall Street also seemed unimpressed. Stocks continued to drop throughout Bush’s address.
Yesterday’s address was Bush’s first major policy speech in months on a subject other than the so-called war on terror. Some key proposals of the Bush plan include: doubling the maximum prison term for corporate fraud, strengthening laws that criminalize document shredding, and expanding the Securities and Exchange Commission. All these proposals are either already on the books or vastly weaken current Democratic proposals. For example: the Bush proposal calls for $100 million in additional funding next year for the SEC; Senate Democrats want to add nearly $300 million. Bush suggested expanding the prison sentence for corporate fraud to 10 years; a competing Democratic proposal would bump that number up to 30.
By far the greatest emphasis of Bush’s speech was on executive responsibility, not on reforming the system. He explained: “I’m calling for a new ethic of personal responsibility in the business community … Tougher laws and stricter requirements will help. Yet, ultimately, the ethics of American business depend on the conscience of America’s business leaders.”
Bush offered these remarks even as rumors swirled of his own corporate misdeeds when he was an oil company director in the late 80s and early 90s. Bush dismissed these rumors at a press conference Monday, saying they were nothing more than a political attack. He added, “Sometimes things aren’t exactly black and white when it comes to accounting procedures.”
- George Bush, speaking on Wall St.
- John Allario, former Enron manager, founder of laydoff.com, a website that designs and sells angry anti-Enron apparel to benefit ex-Enron employees. He is currently working for a company called Cycle America, leading bike tours through Colorado, Wyoming, and other states. He worked at Enron for six years, one month, and nineteen days before he was laid off by cell phone, while at lunch on Monday, December 3, 2001.
- Cara Alcantar. Cara was laid off last week after working for Worldcom for 4 years. She had expected to spend her life working at the company, because, she says, she really enjoyed it.
- Charles Lewis, Founder and Executive Director, The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization in Washington that concentrates on ethics and public-service issues. It has been described by one publication (the Washington Journal) as a “watchdog in the corridors of power”. The Center was among the first to begin investigating Bush’s days as a director of Harken Energy. They published two explosive reports, one in October 2000 on Bush’s multiple violations of security law during his time at Harken; the other in April 2001 on the insider trading deal that made Bush millions.
- Tyson Slocum, Research Director, Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy & Environment Program. Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader in 1971.
- Charles Derber, author of “Corporation Nation” and professor of Sociology at Boston College. His current work focuses on globalization, corporate power and populist politics. Other books include: “The Wilding of America;” “Power in the Highest Degree”; “The Nuclear Seduction”; and “Money, Murder and the American Dream.”