On election night, everyone was expecting that there would be a shake-up among those in power. One thing that was not anticipated was that news of Harvey Pitt's resignation as chairman of the SEC would be announced late that night.
Not that Pitt's resignation was unexpected - a number of critics had been calling for his head for quite some time in recent months, while others had adamantly opposed his appointment 15 months ago. In covering the stories, it was obvious that there was no love lost. The Wall Street Journal viewed Pitt as such a liability to the Bush administration that it published an editorial asserting, "Pitt's resignation is a gift to the White House."
Reporting on the story often marveled at Pitt's consistent ability to shoot himself in the foot with his long-running series of gaffes and blunders that rubbed people the wrong way and served as a frequent embarrassment to the White House. An editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (November 6) remarked, "Even the Titanic only sank once."
Journalists zeroed in on his latest "self-inflicted stain on his reputation" (TheStreet.com, November 6) - he had neglected to share with his fellow commissioners and the White House the fact that his hand-picked choice to head the SEC's new Accounting Oversight Board, former CIA and FBI director William Webster, had chaired the audit committee of a company now being investigated for fraud. Nearly every piece of coverage on the resignation portrayed this oversight as the straw that broke the camel's back, costing Pitt the confidence of the White House.
Pitt's many years of representing the Big Five accounting firms were also cited as a frequent source of criticism that had snowballed during his tenure - creating the image of someone who was too close to those he was supposed to regulate. The Washington Post (November 6) wrote, "It was his long association with the accounting industry that raised questions.... Pitt's critics accused him of coddling his former clients and resisting meaningful reform of the accounting industry."
The emphasis on all of Pitt's faults led several stories to recommend the types of qualifications and character traits that his successor should have. Among the most frequent traits suggested were: a person experienced in the area, independent of outside influence, unafraid to crack down on corporate fraud, and beyond reproach in terms of reputation. A number of names were suggested, but there did not seem to be a clear leader. The best known of the proposed candidates, Rudolph Giuliani, indicated to Larry King (CNN, November 5) he is not looking for a new job.
A number of reports took a close look at the timing behind the resignation and voiced suspicions that, for better or worse, the timing was intended to bury the story. While The Boston Globe (November 6) wrote, "The timing...will undoubtedly raise suspicions that it was chosen to minimize attention," Forbes.com (November 6) viewed the timing with admiration, labeling it "a masterstroke...[which] assured that his departure would be buried in an avalanche of other news."
With Pitt out of the equation, there appears to be enthusiastic support from all sides to start fresh. However, the consensus may end there. Partisan politics will almost surely divide support for the individual eventually chosen as Pitt's successor.