President Bush's nominee to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, Wall Street investment banker William H. Donaldson, is facing Senate scrutiny before he can take on the job of rebuilding investor confidence shattered by last year's corporate scandals.
Donaldson, a former New York Stock Exchange chairman and Bush family friend, was designated — with newly installed Treasury Secretary John Snow — a member of the president's revamped economic team. He was appearing at his confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Banking Committee.
The SEC, straining under a heavy load of investigations of corporate fraud and accounting deception, has been led since early November by a lame-duck chairman, Harvey Pitt. The Bush administration's first SEC head resigned under fire after a series of political fumbles, culminating in a flap over his selection of former FBI Director William Webster to head a new board overseeing the accounting industry. Webster also resigned.
This is the landscape confronting Donaldson: Once-mighty accounting firm Arthur Andersen is a smoldering ruin after an obstruction of justice conviction; its longtime client Enron Corp. led a parade of corporate bankruptcies, scandals and handcuffed CEOs; retirement savings have dissolved and the stock market has plunged.
When Mr. Bush named him in December, Donaldson pledged to work to restore confidence in the markets and corporations and to deal swiftly with the numerous cases of company wrongdoing. Legislation enacted last summer expanded the SEC's powers to prosecute fraud and ordered the agency to issue new rules for companies, executives and accountants.
"One of his biggest challenges will be connecting with and communicating to Main Street investors, many of whom are cynical and shell-shocked," said Marc Beauchamp, executive director of the North American Securities Administrators Association, a group representing state securities regulators. "Investors are the No. 1 special interest group in the U.S. today. They vote and they're not happy, and politicians are waking up to those facts."
In 2001, from the perch of his own investment firm, Donaldson denounced as "terrible" a year-old SEC rule prohibiting companies from revealing financial results and other information to stock analysts and other Wall Street insiders ahead of the public — a long-standing practice.
He called the Regulation Fair Disclosure of 2000 — pushed by small-investor advocates and then-SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt — "crazy in terms of what it does to the free flow of information." Like other critics, Donaldson contended it could make company executives afraid to say anything.
Years earlier, as NYSE chairman, Donaldson argued that accounting standards should be bent to attract foreign companies to the stock exchange.
While his Senate confirmation appears assured, Democrats on the Banking Committee have examined his leadership of the NYSE in the early 1990s, when floor brokers made millions of dollars in illegal trades. The trading fraud scandal later brought the first-ever criminal prosecutions of floor brokers at the exchange.
Donaldson and other senior NYSE officials are said to have quietly approved of letting brokers who worked on the exchange floor trade and share in profits with private customers.
A federal judge in 1999 accused the stock exchange of "downright anorexic" enforcement of a prohibition against floor brokers trading accounts in which they hold an interest. The judge admonished the NYSE for failing to enforce securities laws and its own rules meant to prevent brokers from getting an unfair advantage over other investors.
Known for a colorful candor, the 71-year-old Donaldson — a founder of Wall Street brokerage Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette — recently reported personal assets of between $89 million and $253 million. He was required to report only a range of assets, not specific numbers. He promised to sell his stocks in more than 50 corporations and his interests in partnerships to avoid any potential conflict of interest.