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Struggle for straight answers from Mitt Romney

I wonder if I’m retroactively retired and I just don’t know it yet.

As Mitt Romney has shown me, drawing a paycheck is no barrier to becoming retroactively retired at some point in the future. I’m on the young side to be any kind of retired, but so was Mitt when he made his backdated exit as chief executive of Bain Capital.

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Don’t worry if you’re confused. Every aspect of the furious political back and forth over Romney’s departure from the Boston private equity firm can make your head spin.

The weeklong scrum has targeted one of Romney’s most serious political liabilities: a seeming struggle to give straight answers to legitimate questions about his careers in business and government. His responses to basic questions — such as when did he leave the big company he built from the ground up — routinely come with footnotes and qualifiers.

But the debate also raised the possibility of a scenario I find hard to swallow: Romney in active management control of Bain Capital during an important three-year period more than a decade ago, including his stint as manager of the Winter Olympics in Utah.

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A very brief recap: Romney says he left the firm for good in February 1999 and took over management of the Olympic Games. He says he finally negotiated the terms of his Bain exit by 2001 and formally signed off on an agreement, retroactive to 1999, in 2002.

But a tall pile of public documents list Romney as chief executive and sole owner of Bain Capital through the three-year gap, when he was apparently paid more than $100,000 a year. That’s a lot of zeros in my neighborhood, but it’s more like walking-around money in the private equity world.

Mitt Romney needs to give a simple explanation of the what, why, and when of a key period in his life.

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A number of things that happened at Bain and its portfolio companies over those three years would qualify as political baggage, involving businesses that went bankrupt and investments in the job-outsourcing industry. So was he running the business then, or not?

I don’t know of any evidence that shows Romney was actively involved in the daily operation of Bain Capital and its investments after his presumed departure in 1999. No one who was working at Bain during those years has come forward to say he was.

The idea that Romney was actively leading the complex operations of a big private equity firm while managing all the problems of the Olympics in Utah is very hard to imagine. I just don’t buy the idea that Romney could have been managing Bain Capital in the same hands-on way he ran the firm years earlier — a scenario the Obama campaign would like to think of as an open question.

But the paper trail clearly points to Romney as the sole owner of Bain Capital at the time. He was the chief executive, according to many public disclosures. No one is denying the existence of those documents, and they certainly seem to establish Romney as the person with ultimate responsibility — legal and otherwise — for Bain Capital at the time.

These clear facts are the reason Romney appears to be jumping through hoops to explain his departure from Bain Capital. It was actually a campaign aide who came up with the “retroactive retirement” description on television over the weekend — the kind of political creativity that makes both sides groan.

In the past, Romney had described his departure from Bain Capital as a leave of absence that turned into a retirement over time. That characterization may not provide a sufficient political firewall any longer.

One prediction: The lasting impression of this latest turn in the presidential campaign will be about Mitt Romney and his inability to simply explain the what, why, and when of a key period in his business life.

That wouldn’t be entirely fair. All kinds of businesses — especially private equity — are complicated operations and don’t always lend themselves to simple descriptions. But Romney has made his impressive business career a centerpiece in his campaign. Romney the candidate insists that track record, especially his success at Bain Capital, makes him the better person to lead the country.

The responsibility of explaining all aspects of Romney the businessman in ways that are direct and clear rests with Romney the candidate. He has a lot more work to do.

Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at syre@globe.com.
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