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Few rules govern leaves like Romney’s

Mitt Romney’s leave from Bain Capital sparked a nasty political fight this month after President Obama's campaign blamed the Republican for outsourcing and layoffs at companies owned by Bain Capital a decade ago.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Former governor Mitt Romney, who left Bain Capital in 1999 to oversee the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, was not the first top executive to take a leave of absence while retaining the CEO title and almost certainly won’t be the last. But he could be one of the most controversial.

A number of corporate leaders, including the late Steve Jobs, have taken leaves over the past several years to deal with medical issues or legal problems or to run for office. Such leaves are more common at privately held companies such as Bain, which don’t have to answer to public shareholders.

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“If it’s a private company, anything goes,” said Charles M. Elson, director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware.

Still, Romney’s leave sparked a nasty political fight this month after President Obama's campaign blamed the Republican for outsourcing and layoffs at companies owned by Bain Capital a decade ago.

Romney’s­ presidential campaign responded that the criticism was unfair because Romney had already left the Boston private equity firm to run the Olympics.

The Obama campaign, in turn, pointed to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission that show Romney was listed as chief executive and chairman of Bain for three more years, when he finalized his retirement

Romney took leaves from Bain two earlier times. The first was in 1990, when he left temporarily to help turn around Bain & Co., the Boston consulting firm from which Bain Capital was spun off. He left in 1994 to run unsuccessfully against Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Romney’s final leave from Bain was unusual, since few chief executives temporarily give up their jobs to run the Olympics, which themselves are unusual events in the United States. Illnesses are more frequent reasons for leaves.

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The most famous example is Jobs, who took several leaves from Apple Inc., the company he cofounded, to deal with pancreatic cancer. Jobs left for the company for good in August and died in October.

Sourcefire Inc., a Maryland cybsersecurity company, said this month that chief executive John Burris took a leave to fight colon cancer. Last month, Cambridge Savings Bank’s chief, Robert M. Wilson, took a leave for unspecified medical reasons. In all three cases, the firms turned to interim CEOs.

Other CEOs have taken leaves to deal with legal issues. For instance, Daniel Mudd took a leave from Fortress Investment Group of New York in December after he was sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission over hisrole running Fannie Mae, the government-backed mortgage company.

CEOs usually wind up resigning soon after taking a leave when they are facing serious allegations. Mudd, for example, quit a month later.

Still other executives take leaves to run for public office. John Delaney, founder of the commercial lender CapitalSource Inc., took a leave as executive chairman at the beginning of the year to run for Congress in Maryland. Delaney resigned as executive chairman after winning the Democratic nomination in April, but remains chairman.

Anthony Gemma temporarily gave up his job as chief executive of Mediapeel, a Providence marketing company, to run for Congress as a Democrat in Rhode Island in March. Gemma is challenging Representative David N. Cicilline in a primary scheduled for Sept. 11.

Sometimes, executives who are on leave keep a hand in company operations. Sourcefire, for instance, said Burris will remain on the board and “be available when possible to the executive team for strategic input during his leave.”

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Cambridge Savings, however, said its chief executive won’t have any duties at the bank while on leave, allowing him to focus on returning to health.

Elson, the corporate governance professor, said there is no standard for executives on leave. “It depends on the individual,” Elson said.


Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.