Huntsman repeatedly insisted that he would not contribute to the Olympics — even as late as the very week when, in a reversal, he wrote a million-dollar check. Huntsman's support was crucial, many said at the time, to convince other Utah philanthropists to follow suit.
A year later, Bain Capital provided the bulk of a $600 million investment that allowed Huntsman's company to complete a purchase of Imperial Chemical Industries, making Huntsman Corp. the world's largest privately held chemical company at the time.
To some, that windfall of assistance from Romney's company looked like a quid pro quo for Huntsman's help raising the money for the Olympics to succeed. It raised enough questions that a SLOC spokesperson had to deny that Romney had anything to do with the deal.
The Gateway and Huntsman deals (first reported by the Phoenix in 2007) could have been purely coincidental. But it certainly wouldn't be out of character for Romney to use that kind of leverage from one area of his influence to get results in another.
Bain Capital was a pioneer in that kind of synergy. Examples abound of one Bain-controlled company helping another. Staples became a huge buyer from American Pad & Paper; Mattress Discounter stores pushed Sealy mattresses; and Bain-funded start-ups received key early contracts with Bain-owned companies.
And the apparent conflicts of interest didn't bother Romney, as he made sponsorship deals with Bain-held companies, like Sealy; companies he helped run, like Marriott; or companies where his son worked, like monster.com.
The most telling, though, is a deal that ultimately did not get made — with Staples, where Romney served on the board, and held 50,000 shares worth more than $1 million. A Bain Capital fund held 10 times that stake in the company in 2000 — and increased its holding to more than three million shares in 2001, according to SEC documents.
As Romney describes it in Turnaround, Staples CEO Tom Stemberg had no interest in the office-supplies sponsorship. But he agreed after Romney sweetened the deal to include "lobbying SLOC board members and other corporate contacts to switch their office-supply contracts to Staples." That proposal was so valuable, Stemberg offered an additional $1 million after Romney learned that Office Depot had beaten Staples to the deal. (Office Depot insisted on keeping the sponsorship.)
It's not hard to speculate that some of those "other corporate contacts" might have included Bain companies — and to wonder whether Romney was making similar offers, leveraging his Bain connections, to land other Olympic sponsors.
That kind of deal-making could help explain why Romney wanted to keep presenting himself as Bain Capital's owner, president, and CEO, with some control over the company — and not as the fully separated retiree he describes now.
But it might also say something much more important.
If Olympic sponsors were paid off with business from Bain-controlled companies, then Romney's Salt Lake success seems less a matter of skillful management, and more a function of his ability to buy what he wants. To most voters, that's a far less presidential trait.
To read the Talking Politics blog, go to thePhoenix.com/talkingpolitics. David S. Bernstein can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow him on Twitter @dbernstein.