BOCA RATON, Fla. – Departing U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt Friday defended his brief time in office, saying he braved attacks and partisanship that he hoped his replacement would not have to endure.
But Pitt, who resigned Tuesday evening, was among friends when he addressed the Securities Industry Association's annual meeting. His popularity with the Wall Street executives in attendance was a reflection of his close ties to the business, a relationship his critics charged was too cozy.
"Why wouldn't I want to address this group?" he said, referring to speculation he would cancel the engagement.
Pitt, who entered to rousing applause and left to a standing ovation, took the opportunity to jab at the political machine he believes led to his ouster.
"It's easy to find fault and it's easy to criticize," he said. "I hope my successor isn't greeted with the same climate of attack and partisanship."
Pitt was facing a storm of controversy over the selection process for a new body to police the accounting industry. The chairman never disclosed that his choice to run the oversight board, former FBI and CIA chief William Webster, had headed the audit committee at a small firm accused of fraud.
Pitt's past history as a high-flying corporate lawyer was billed as a strength when he was first appointed. But his long list of former clients in the securities and accounting industries — which are now under fire — hastened criticism he was too biased to serve as the nation's top regulator.
Pitt said he was proud of the SEC's work during his 15-months heading the SEC, including the orderly reopening of markets following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and forcing company executives to personally certify financial results.
"Unfortunately, turmoil surrounding my chairmanship makes it very difficult for the commissioners and staff to perform critical assignments," Pitt said.
"In a partisan environment, criticism often devolves into attack. This doesn't help anyone. In fact, it's not just unproductive, it's counterproductive," he said.
Pitt's remarks also focused on what the securities industry needed to do to restore confidence, as Wall Street faces criticism over a slew of industry practices, especially the objectivity of its stock analysts.
"In the end, it's incumbent upon the private sector — you who are responsible for making our markets function — to ensure you meet and exceed the highest standards for professional conduct," he said.
"Regulation can never substitute for people doing their jobs honestly," Pitt said.
In a later speech, UBS PaineWebber Chief Executive Joe Grano praised Pitt's courage for speaking, and encouraged another round of applause for the outgoing commissioner.
Grano later said he didn't think Wall Street had a specific successor in mind for Pitt.
"I hope that we move quickly" in naming a replacement, he said in a media briefing.