After Months on the Hot Seat, Bailout Director Nears Exit

"No question it was a trial," Neel Kashkari says of his time as interim head of Treasury's bailout program. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
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By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The first time Neel Kashkari, the head of the Treasury Department's bailout operations, was called to testify before an oversight committee on Capitol Hill, he placed an index card on the table in front of him with the words: "The louder he yells at me, the calmer I will be."

Indeed, the chairman of the committee, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, laid into Kashkari repeatedly over nearly four hours.

For the past six months, Kashkari, has been a face of the government's financial rescue and a sponge for congressional anger over the program. Although he scrambled to get the rescue's operations running, often sleeping in his office and working seven days a week, during hearings lawmakers questioned his competence. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) once called him "a chump."

As Kashkari prepares to leave the Treasury -- Friday is probably his last day, he says -- some of the Democrats who excoriated him during hearings acknowledge that Kashkari played a vital role in arresting a meltdown of the nation's financial system.

"Don't take it personally," Kucinich (D-Ohio) told Kashkari behind closed doors after grilling him during a separate marathon session on Capitol Hill, according to people who were present. "I think you're doing a great job."

Kashkari, a Republican who had aspired to work in the Bush White House before coming to the Treasury in 2006, also got high marks from Obama officials for quickly building a financial rescue operation, which is now up to 135 staff members and growing.

"I deeply admire the guy," Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said in an interview. "I think he's a person of integrity. He's creative, pragmatic and gets stuff done. I think he's an A-plus public servant."

Kashkari, who was named interim assistant secretary for financial stability under Bush and continued on a temporary basis in the Obama administration, leaves behind programs that have intertwined the government more deeply with the financial sector than perhaps ever before.

"No question it was a trial," Kashkari said of his time at the Treasury. "But I'm incredibly fortunate to serve at this important time in our history, no question about that. I also learned about myself, how to bring a team together and to get the team to perform under unbelievably trying circumstances."

But some lawmakers say Kashkari and former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. sullied the government's rescue efforts because they focused on bailouts for Wall Street, but failed to explain their actions well or keep big banks accountable for how the firms used government money.

Kashkari acknowledged that public relations was the issue that the Paulson team "struggled with the most." In the fall, the Treasury's objective was to keep the financial system from collapsing, Kashkari said. But the team failed to clearly explain how it was spending the money.

"Explaining our actions and our rationale is by far the hardest thing we've had to do because these programs are so complicated," Kashkari said. "We definitely could have done that better."

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