WASHINGTON – President Bush's corporate fraud task force met at the White House Friday in its first meeting since its creation earlier this week as a SWAT team against corporate abusers.
Meeting a full week before their deadline to convene, officials hoped to get a jump on their mission. They said they are bent on getting corporate abusers who cook the books while taking unearned profits, a practice that is blamed for the loss of investor confidence and compounding declines in the stock market.
"We are already hard at work with respect to the matters under the jurisdiction of the corporate fraud task force," said Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, who met informally with the group at the Justice Department earlier in the day.
"Across the country, there are a number of investigations, some public, most of which are confidential, that are already underway. We have hundreds of career prosecutors involved in these investigations ... we are going to pursue these matters with vigor and in an aggressive manner but I also want to assure everyone that in doing our work we are going to be professional, we are going to be fair, and we are going to be just," he added.
Headed by Thompson, the task force includes Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Harvey Pitt, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and the heads of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
Pitt has been under fire for being too slow to take action on corporate executives and too close to the industry as a former lawyer for accounting firms. On Thursday, Sen. John McCain called for Pitt, who has been in office since last August, to step down.
Pitt said that the SEC has sought 71 officers and directors accounting files in the first eight months of this year compared to 38 in all of 2000.
He said the task force is going to ask chief executive officers and chief financial officers of the nation's 1,000 largest companies to certify the validity of their financial statements or explain why they are unable to do so.
Bush signed an executive order Tuesday bringing the task force into existence with the goal of providing direction on the pursuit of corporate fraud by making recommendations to the Justice Department and the president on how to enhance cooperation between agencies and improve anti-crime laws.
But the last role was in dispute at the White House Friday with Press Secretary Ari Fleischer adamant that legislative advice is not the job of the group.
"The purpose of the task force is not to write law. The purpose of the task force is to prosecute people who engage in fraud and wrongdoing. That's what this task force is set up to do," Fleischer said.
After a grueling week, the White House also seemed exhausted by Democratic efforts to tar the president and vice president with stories about their actions as CEO's. Democrats have been on a coordinated campaign to accuse Bush of hypocrisy for engaging in activities while a board member at Harken Energy Corp. that he now wants to make illegal. Vice President Cheney's tenure as head of Halliburton Corp. is also being questioned.
Frustration bubbled up in Fleischer's daily briefing.
"After a week of noise about nothing, people are seeing a scandal-seeking Washington that is out of touch with a solution-seeking nation," Fleischer said.
Fox News' Jim Angle and James Rosen and the Associated Press contributed to this report.