WASHINGTON – Harvey Pitt, the embattled chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, was acting on his own in asking Congress for a promotion and a raise, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.
President Bush did not know about the request until he read news accounts, Fleischer said.
Still, Fleischer declined to criticize Pitt, saying "I think it's always a prerogative of independent agencies to talk to Congress."
"The president is focused on the strengthening of the SEC's structure and ability to fight fraud," Fleischer said. "That's where his focus is at. He's not focused on that issue."
Pitt, who led an SEC meeting Wednesday, did not mention the request and refused to answer questions from reporters afterward.
SEC spokeswoman Christi Harlan defended Pitt's request to lawmakers.
"It was an informal suggestion to the conference on behalf of the agency, to raise its profile to help investor confidence and to attract the most qualified accountants, lawyers and economists," she said. "It had nothing to do with the chairman."
Pitt's lobbying efforts to elevate the SEC to full Cabinet status and to raise the chairman's salary from the present $138,200 to $166,700 was first reported in Wednesday's editions of The New York Times.
Pitt asked lawmakers to make such changes part of legislation to crack down on corporate fraud. Key lawmakers reached agreement on the measure Wednesday and the White House announced that Bush would sign it. The final version does not include the changes Pitt sought.
As to giving the SEC Cabinet status, Fleischer said, "The SEC is on top of their job and doing it well. And they have the status that they need to enforce the laws."
Pitt has become a divisive figure because of his past close ties with the accounting industry as a securities lawyer. Several top lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have called for Pitt's resignation.
"I was really surprised to see Mr. Pitt's recommendations," Daschle said Wednesday. "Of all the things that he has to think about, it is amazing to me that this is what he's spending his time thinking about."
He added: "I think it makes our point. The point many of us had is that he's not qualified to serve in that position," Daschle added.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., also criticized the proposal. "I don't think there'd be a lot of support for it, either making it Cabinet or increasing the salary," he said.
Lott said he would not call for Pitt to resign. "I don't know Harvey Pitt and I don't know a lot about him. But ... this is a guy that just got confirmed less than a year ago, unanimously," Lott said.
Asked whether Bush supported Pitt's requests, Fleischer said: "That's not something that was raised with the White House, and obviously, it's not something that Congress included."
"The SEC is on the job and doing it well, and that's what the president is focused on," Fleischer said.