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Pitt May Be On Way Out At SEC

White House support for embattled Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt is deteriorating so much that Pitt may be asked to step down, or be allowed to resign, after the elections, The Washington Post says in its Saturday editons.

The newspaper cites Republican sources as saying White House officials are exasperated that Pitt's handling of the appointments to a new accounting oversight board had created a political crisis for President Bush days before midterm elections that could determine which party controls Congress.

The president cannot force Pitt to leave the commission, but he can strip him of the chairmanship of the independent agency, the Post explains. Pitt has few, if any, friends among Democrats in Congress to come to his aid. Many of them have already called on him to quit.

Publicly, a White House spokesman expressed continued confidence in Pitt's leadership. An SEC spokeswoman declined to comment to the Post.

Mr. Bush and top aides are losing patience with Pitt but have not decided whether to seek his ouster as Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, a senior White House official told the Associated Press Saturday.

Despite increasing concerns, Mr. Bush still believes Pitt has done a good job cracking down on corporate wrongdoers and that no decision has been made on whether the White House would seek his resignation - and none will come before Tuesday's elections, said the White House official.

SEC officials tokd the Post yesterday that the search for accounting board members was so rushed and sprawling that the agency did not begin formal background checks on the candidates before its commissioners voted on the appointments last week.

Only after the vote did the full commission learn that the newly appointed chairman of the oversight board, former CIA and FBI director William Webster, had chaired the audit committee of an Internet company that had been accused of fraud.

Webster had privately told Pitt before the vote that officials at the company, U.S. Technologies Inc., were being questioned about possible fraud. But Pitt failed to relay that information to the other four SEC commissioners, the Post says.

The SEC announced Thursday that its inspector general would investigate how Webster's selection was handled, and yesterday the agency said it was launching a second investigation into Webster and his actions at U.S. Technologies.

The company allegedly fired its outside audit firm after the auditor highlighted problems with the company's accounting controls. "We've got to know how much, if any, this disqualifies [Webster] to serve as chair of the oversight board," the Post quotes an SEC official as saying.

The creation last summer of the oversight board, which was given significant powers to reform the accounting process, was intended to restore faith in corporate financial reports after investors lost billions of dollars in alleged accounting frauds at companies such as Enron Corp. and WorldCom Inc., the Post points out.

But the board has been marred by accusations that the process of selecting its members was politicized, secretive and heavily influenced by the accounting industry, the Post adds.

Republican strategists told the Post they fear that the controversy over Pitt's handling of the Webster appointment will remind voters of the close relationship between Mr. Bush and business, which Democrats see as one of his biggest vulnerabilities.

Publicly, White House aides issued somewhat limited statements to the Post of support for Pitt. "The president continues to support him in his efforts to crack down on corporate wrongdoing," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters on Air Force One. But he suggested that could change after the SEC's investigation. "We don't know the facts," he said.

Behind the scenes, the Post says, administration officials made no effort to conceal their exasperation, both at Pitt's actions and at the timing.

The New York Times reports in its Saturday editions that Pitt's political troubles deepened even further Friday when the senator who will become the senior Republican on the banking committee supported calls by Democrats for hearings into Webster's selection.

The senator, Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, criticized Pitt's judgment. He cited Pitt's failure to tell other commissioners that Webster had headed the U.S. Technologies audit committee. "The process broke down somewhere," Senator Shelby said.

In January, Shelby will become either the chairman or the ranking Republican — depending on which party wins control of the Senate — of the panel that has jurisdiction over the commission.

Shelby's endorsement of the hearings, which were announced on Thursday by the committee's Democratic chairman, Senator Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, means that they will proceed later this month, regardless of which party controls the Senate after the elections.

Shelby confirmed to the AP on Saturday that he supported calls by Democratic lawmakers this week for hearings by the committee on Webster's selection.

"I believe hearings to examine this matter are entirely appropriate," said Shelby. He added: "At the end of the day I believe Judge Webster is still a good choice for this position."

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