Republican U.S. Senate candidate Norm Coleman on Tuesday spoke out on the corporate ethics scandal calling, among other things, for more government powers to seize ill-gotten gains from corrupt business people. Incumbent DFL Senator Paul Wellstone says he's glad Coleman is talking about corporate accountability. But Wellstone said he thinks Minnesotans will trust him to stand up to stand up to corporate wrongdoers.
Norm Coleman's corporate ethics speech had the look and feel of a television production. In a large meeting room at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis, media crews working for the Coleman campaign rigged a series of lights and asked local reporters to avoid flash photos to avoid interference with the television commercial they were filming.
With 50 business leaders looking on, Coleman said the business community needs to transform what it does for the good of the nation.
"Corporate irresponsibility is undermining confidence in our economy and costing Americans' jobs," Coleman said. "In a sense, it is a national security issue because it threatens the economic security of every hardworking mom and dad in America."
Coleman talked about morality and greed, citing scripture. He said there is no such thing as "corporate" wrongdoing only individual wrongdoing in corporate settings. Underscoring his 17 years as a prosecutor with the Minnesota attorney general's office, Coleman said Congress should give the Securities and Exchange Commission more power to seize wrongly accumulated assets from executives, including, but not limited to, bonuses and stock options.
"We should have the ability to take the fruits of ill gotten gains from CEOs in the same way we do drug dealers - have them forfeit assets like luxurious mansions, without any homestead exemptions," Coleman said.
Coleman said to help Americans who've been hurt by the recent corporate scandals, Congress should give a tax break to retirees who are forced to sell stock at a loss to pay for their living expenses. Coleman also said Congress would help Americans more broadly by increasing IRA contribution limits.
Touring a low-income highrise under renovation in Brooklyn Center, incumbent DFL Senator Paul Wellstone said he was pleased his Republican opponent is talking about corporate responsibility.
"All of the sudden the fact that I haven't been at the table with WorldCom and all these big corporations and all these big economic powers and the fact that I've been rattling the cage and saying these companies don't get to set up in Bermuda and avoid paying their taxes, all of the sudden now what I've been doing is now a plus," Wellstone said. "And I guess you know Norm today is going to now join me and that's good."
Wellstone's campaign says some of the things Coleman is now calling for, including more SEC powers, are already in place under recently passed legislation. And the Wellstone campaign is once again talking about the value of Wellstone's consumer watchdog track record.
Wellstone said he wishes the corporate troubles, like those at Qwest Communications which have left thousands of retirees with collapsed investment portfolios, never would have happened.
But Wellstone told reporters the sentiment of Minnesotans in response to corporate corruption will likely help his re-election effort: "If you're asking me the question, who do people in Minnesota think would be most you know the independent, you know, fighter for them willing to take on these big corporations, willing to take on these big economic interests in this choice, I'll probably do pretty well."
Wellstone backed the recent move in Congress to tighten control on corporate accounting by banning what had become popular auditor-consultant business relationships. He says Congress should also require businesses to count stock options as an expense. Wellstone also wants pension reform that would allow all workers to diversify their retirement accounts.
Coleman declined to respond to Wellstone's proposals. Instead Coleman, as he has frequently, called Wellstone the most anti-business member of the U.S. Senate and suggested Wellstone would likely try to go too far in response to the current scandals.
"My fear is that if you look at the deeds of a few here that somehow that you cast aspersion on all," Coleman said. "We've got to deal harshly with the bad guys and we've got to make sure that those ill gotten gains somehow get back to the victims."
Wellstone says the best way to combat poor corporate practices in the long run would be to revamp the nation's election laws, diminishing businesses' influence on campaigns. "What you got to do is I think someday I hope we'll get to kind of a system of some kind of clean money, clean elections, public financing where you get the big money out," he said.