Harvey Pitt, a legal wunderkind who lasted just 18 months as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission under President George W. Bush, died on Tuesday in Washington. He was 78.
His death, in a hospital, came after a sudden illness, according to his family, which did not specify the ailment.
Mr. Pitt’s career had three consecutive legs, any one of which alone might have been the pinnacle on a lesser résumé. He began his career at the S.E.C. and was promoted to general counsel at age 30, the youngest ever to achieve that rank. After only three years, he left to represent corporate clients for the powerful law firm Fried Frank. There, rising to managing partner in the firm’s Washington office, he helped it become hugely profitable.
He returned to the S.E.C. as chairman in 2001, after sailing through a unanimous confirmation vote in which Sen. Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, called him “the Zeus of the field.” Not long after, Mr. Pitt became somewhat of a household name for overseeing the swift reopening of U.S. stock exchanges after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
His popularity dipped, however, amid a series of corporate accounting scandals — most famously at the energy giant Enron — that drew renewed attention to his prior corporate work. Representatives of both parties questioned his interest in investigating private-sector wrongdoing.
The final straw came when it emerged that he had failed to tell the White House or his fellow S.E.C. commissioners that an accounting board chairman he championed had headed the audit committee of a company accused of fraud. Under pressure, Mr. Pitt resigned on election night 2002.
Born on Feb. 28, 1945 in Brooklyn, Harvey Lloyd Pitt was the child of Morris and Sara Pitt. His father was a vice president of the Waldbaum’s supermarket chain; his mother was a homemaker.
Harvey, a Brooklyn Dodgers fan who was gutted when the team left for the West Coast, his family said, went on to earn degrees from Brooklyn College and St. John’s University before joining the S.E.C. straight out of college. It was the only job he had ever wanted.
In 1978, with a growing family, he went into private practice, where he represented some of the same people his organization had been charged with regulating. His clients included Ivan Boesky, who pleaded guilty to insider trading during the junk bond scandal of the late 1980s, and scores of financial firms.
Such was his reputation that when Mr. Pitt’s own firm landed in a minor legal spat, his hiring of the then-smaller rival firm Williams & Connolly made waves.
“It was notable that if Harvey Pitt had confidence in us, others would easily follow, and they did,” said Brendan Sullivan, a Williams & Connolly senior partner.
At his confirmation hearing, Senator Phil Gramm, Republican of Texas, offered a tweak on a song lyric from the British rock band Hermit’s Hermits: “Harvey Pitt has seen it from both sides.”
Inside the commission, he was indefatigable, said Cynthia Glassman, a former commissioner. After the group received Blackberry smartphones for the first time, she said, Mr. Pitt became “big on emails — especially in the middle of the night.”
He took a lighter approach to S.E.C. enforcement than did his predecessors, telling Congress that he would “repair relationships that have been harmed in the past.” That attitude proved untenable in the wake of Enron and other scandals.
“Your choice of words sends the wrong message to auditors, to the S.E.C. staff and to the investing public,” Rep. John Dingell wrote to Mr. Pitt a few weeks after Enron’s collapse.
Morale in the agency dropped precipitously during Mr. Pitt’s tenure, and a slew of senior staff departed.
His fall in stature was summarized by a New York Times headline on the day in 2003 that his successor, William H. Donaldson, was confirmed: “S.E.C. Choice Says He’s No Harvey Pitt.”
But friends and former colleagues said Mr. Pitt had been unjustly critized. The former S.E.C. general counsel David Becker recalled being on the phone with Mr. Pitt when the real estate developer Donald J. Trump called to complain about Trump companies being investigated for fraud.
“Harvey politely explained that he was not in a position to help, since he had added to the division’s proposal the very fraud allegation about which Trump was calling to complain,” Mr. Becker said.
Mr. Pitt’s first marriage, to Phyllis Kay, ended in divorce in 1981. He married Saree Ruffin in 1984. He is survived by his wife; two daughters, Emily Pitt and Sally Pitt Plowden; two sons, Jonathan and Rob; and three grandchildren.
In the years that followed his S.E.C. chairmanship, Mr. Pitt hardly receded from public view. He continued to weigh in on regulatory issues, occasionally contributing opinion articles to The Wall Street Journal.
His most recent column took a sharp view of new proposed S.E.C. rules on private investment funds.
“Too often, regulatory demands make it difficult or impossible for new entrants to gain traction in an industry,” Mr. Pitt wrote. “There is often no voice at the table representing the interests of that segment of the industry.”
Rob Copeland covers Wall Street and banking. He is the author of “The Fund: Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates and the Unraveling of a Wall Street Legend.” @realrobcopeland
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