Pitt, Harvey

▪ 2003

      As corporate accounting scandals emerged on an alarmingly frequent basis in the U.S. during much of 2002, Harvey Pitt, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), found himself the target of withering criticism. Prominent leaders on both sides of the political aisle claimed that he had been lax in enforcing SEC rules and questioned whether, as a former securities lawyer who had performed work for virtually all of the nation's major accounting firms, Pitt enjoyed too cozy of a relationship with the subjects of his agency's oversight. In a widely publicized op-ed column for the New York Times that appeared in early July, U.S. Sen. John McCain described the chairman's response to the accounting abuses as “slow and tepid” and joined the chorus of those calling for his resignation. Pitt hardly helped his own cause when he later asked Congress to elevate his office to a cabinet-level post and to grant him a pay raise of more than 20%. His request for a promotion and raise was denied, though the White House steadfastly refused to criticize the chairman, an appointee of Pres. George W. Bush. For his part, Pitt maintained that the SEC was the most effective ever in ensuring corporate responsibility. He pointed specifically to new SEC measures that required top executives to certify personally their companies' financial results; executives who failed to do so faced criminal as well as civil liability.

      Pitt was born on Feb. 28, 1945, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He earned a B.A. from the City University of New York in 1965 and a J.D. from St. John's University School of Law, Jamaica, N.Y., in 1968. For the next 10 years, he worked as an attorney for the SEC. In 1975, at the age of 29, he was named the SEC's youngest-ever general counsel, a post he held until 1978, when he left the commission to enter private practice.

      Over the next two decades, Pitt built a reputation as one of the most capable securities lawyers in the nation. At the Washington, D.C., law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson—where he eventually rose to become partner—he had a client list of more than 100 firms and individuals. Some of those clients, most notably the giant accounting firm Arthur Andersen, would later come under SEC investigation. After President Bush tapped him to become SEC chairman in August 2001, Pitt made it a policy to recuse himself from cases involving former law clients. Although intended to avoid conflicts of interest, this policy left the chairman open to questions regarding his ability to crack down on corporate abuses. Pitt reversed course in 2002, deciding that he would participate in SEC cases even if they involved former clients. He also led the charge to create a comprehensive new oversight board to help regulate the accounting industry, but his appointment of former Central Intelligence Agency director William Webster to head this board ultimately proved disastrous. Pitt resigned his SEC post on November 5 after it was revealed that Webster had served as chief of the audit committee for a small public company, U.S. Technologies Inc., accused by its investors of fraud.

Sherman Hollar

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Universalium. 2010.

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