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Mike McGavick, the Republican running for the U.S. Senate in Washington, sounds in his statement of response to the current campaign hiccup as if he’s almost throwing a tantrum.

You consider the words )from David Postman’s blog): “This is a politically motivated character attack. The allies of the incumbent senator have found yet another avenue to continue their daily personal attacks on me. Today’s action further demonstrates how far my opposition will go in attacking my character and the character of Safeco, one of the Northwest’s great companies. These allegations regarding my compensation are without merit and obviously politically inspired. It is sad that my opponents insist on dragging Safeco into the mean-spirited political process.”

We may be uninclined to accept his critics’ point here entirely at face value, either, but they do have one, and it extends far beyond the person of McGavick and (legal) personhood of SafeCo, of which McGavick was until recently the chief operating officer.

Consider this scenario:

An ambitious publicly-held corporation (as are they all) decides it wants serious political leverage. The best place to get that is a seat the U.S. Senate, which a century ago businesses routinely bought and sold. So a plan is hatched: We’ll hire a person with some political experience who can be groomed to run for the Senate, and we’ll pay him the stratospheric set of wages and bonuses and options that CEOs tend to get these days. That money – tens of millions, enough to bankroll a fat campaign – once in his pockets, can be used to whatever degree to self-fund a Senate race. The corporation can even write it off – and keep its hands off the campaign finance system altogether. You can see it now: Dozens of corporate CEO types around the country sweeping into the Senate . . .

It’s a plausible scenario. No reason it can’t happen. Except that it might not if it goes too public.

But no. We’re not saying that has happened in the case of Safeco and McGavick, the key evidence of which is that, although Safeco paid McGavick handsomely in the manner to which CEOs are accustomed these days – this year alone he pulled in $28 million – he has not (yet) dumped his millions into a Senate race in which he is (so far) being heavily outspent by his opponent, Democratic incumbent Maria Cantwell.

Therein lies the problem for McGavick – and the likely reason for his intense reaction. If he has any intention of using his millions to help self-fund as the race hits critical, the lawsuit filed today by Emma Schwartzman will make doing so a whole lot more difficult.

Here is her statement (posted on the webside devoted to the case):

My name is Emma Schwartzman. Today I filed a derivative action on behalf of Safeco Corporation against Mike McGavick and Safeco’s Board of Directors. Our lawsuit seeks to recover as much as $28 million dollars that Mike McGavick unethically received from Safeco after he resigned as Safeco’s CEO.

If you or I abscond with money that doesn’t belong to us, it’s called theft. When a CEO does it: that’s called corporate waste. Our lawsuit alleges that Mike McGavick didn’t earn the $28 million, he knew he wasn’t entitled to it, but he took it anyway.

I have brought this lawsuit to protect the assets and integrity of Safeco Corporation — a company that is important to me, my family, and my community.

My great, great grandfather was a founder of General Insurance Company, which later became Safeco. My great grandmother sat on the board and was an adviser to the company in its early years – at a time when most women had little role in corporate affairs. I own original shares passed down to me from my great great grandfather.

I have always been proud of my family’s role in building Safeco into a major employer in our state and a trusted member of the business community.

But under Mike McGavick’s leadership, Safeco lost its ethical compass. His greed has diminished the value of my investment and, more importantly, the ethical values of this great company.

It is no defense that the Board of Directors agreed to this payout. McGavick knew he didn’t deserve this money, and by taking it he breached his duties to Safeco and its shareholders and to me. He cannot point the blame elsewhere.

I am not an activist and I have never filed a lawsuit. I am part of a generation that is fed up with corporate corruption. Our knowledge of big business comes from a seemingly endless string of scandals – from Enron and Worldcom to today’s unfolding stock option scandals. These examples of greed shine light into boardrooms where CEO’s try to get rich by any means necessary. They disregard the law, ethics, and impacts to shareholders and employees. And board members turn a blind eye. It’s appalling.

In bringing this suit, I represent the interests of all Safeco shareholders in saying no to Mike McGavick’s style of corruption. He served as our CEO, and then, with a big smile, he looted the company on his way out the door.

We won’t stand for this corporate corruption in our backyard, and we won’t stand for it in our hometown company, Safeco. I ask you, Mike McGavick: Give back the $28 million to Safeco and its shareholders.

While she concern may be on the corporate side, about the nature of payments made in early 2006 after McGavick had already resigned, the case seems more practically about two other things: It puts the public on notice about McGavick’s money, and it puts the corporation on notice that trouble may lie ahead if it tried to back-door funds into a campaign. Both messages stands to reverberate a lot farther than just the state of Washington and the corporation of Safeco.

Of course, if the money stays in McGavick’s hands, the suit as a political issue probably goes nowhere. As fat as those payouts were, they weren’t really that unusual in what passes for big corporate practice these days. If McGavick had left Safeco simply to retire rather than to run for the Senate, conventional practice might have led to no different result. (Which is not necessarily to say the lawsuit, which hinges on terms of contract, is off base; we won’t try to reach that sort of assessment here.)

But the proof of that lies in what happens to the money now. McGavick has been trapped, to a degree: If he tries to use money he has and probably would like to spend, the result may snap back harder on him than he can (politically) afford. And the same may be true of Safeco.

This will be watched closely.

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