Mitt Romney has made it difficult to know precisely where his money is invested, whether it is offshore or in controversial companies, or whether those holdings could affect his policies or present any conflicts of interest.

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WASHINGTON — Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, whose wealth has become a central issue in the 2012 campaign, has taken advantage of an obscure exception in federal ethics laws to avoid disclosing the nature and extent of his holdings.

By offering a limited description of his assets, Romney has made it difficult to know precisely where his money is invested, whether it is offshore or in controversial companies, or whether those holdings could affect his policies or present any conflicts of interest.

In 48 accounts from Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded in Boston, Romney declined on financial-disclosure forms to identify the underlying assets, including his holdings in a company that moved U.S. jobs to China and a California firm once owned by Bain that filed for bankruptcy years ago and laid off more than 1,000 workers.

Those are known only because Bain publicly disclosed them in government filings and on the Internet. Most of the underlying assets — the specific investments of Bain funds — are not known because Romney is covered by a confidentiality agreement with the company.

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Several of Romney’s assets — including a family trust valued at roughly $100 million, nine overseas holdings and 12 partnership interests — were not named initially on his disclosure forms, emerging months later when he agreed to release his tax returns.

There is no indication that Romney is violating any rules, and his advisers note that his reports have been certified by the Office of Government Ethics, which reviews the disclosures required of presidential candidates.

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the disclosure “completely and accurately describes Governor Romney’s assets as required by the law.” She said that Romney does not know the details of his investments because he turned them over to a trustee to manage, and that ethics officials confirmed that “everything … was reported correctly” and completely.

Several outside experts across the political spectrum, however, said Romney’s disclosure is the most opaque they have encountered, with some suggesting the filing effectively defeats the spirit of disclosure requirements.

“His approach turns the whole purpose of the ethics statute on its ear,” said Cleta Mitchell, a Republican lawyer who has represented dozens of candidates and officials in the disclosure process, including Romney’s leading challenger for the GOP nomination, Rick Santorum.

Romney’s fortune and his association with Bain are frequent topics in the presidential campaign, with opponents charging that the way he accumulated much of his wealth — through leveraged buyouts that in some cases ended in bankruptcy and layoffs — is at odds with the interests of working-class Americans.

The ties to Bain, a private firm known for its reticence, put Romney in a rare category exempting him from the transparency rules that apply to most candidates.

Like all nominees for federal office, Romney is covered by the statute that mandates disclosure of assets. But since the 2004 campaign — when Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry declined to disclose some of his wife’s holdings — the Office of Government Ethics has permitted nominees and presidential candidates to postpone revealing underlying assets in investment accounts that have a legally binding confidentiality agreement.

Bain routinely asks its investors to sign such agreements.

But after a nominee is in office, the ethics agency requires that any undisclosed assets be sold as a way to meet conflict-of-interest requirements.

The implications for Romney, if elected, are uncertain because sitting presidents are not subject to the conflict-of-interest sections of the ethics law. Although still subject to the disclosure requirements, a president cannot be compelled by the ethics agency to sell undisclosed assets, according to an agency official. Romney’s would be the first presidency to face this circumstance, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Romney does disclose underlying assets in his accounts held by financial firms other than Bain, such as Goldman Sachs. But his advisers say Bain holdings, the source of most of his wealth, are kept confidential at the request of Bain management for proprietary business reasons. Romney’s attorneys asked Bain officials to release information about the funds, but the request was denied, according to Saul.

Confidentiality rules

When he talks about Bain, Romney promotes the image of a jobs generator spawning megastores such as Staples and Sports Authority, which serve as emblems of Bain’s extraordinary financial success.

But some other Bain-affiliated companies have a history of controversy. Romney is invested, for example, in DDI, a company in California once owned by Bain that filed for bankruptcy in 2003 and laid off more than 1,000 workers.

Company Chief Executive Mikel Williams said the firm has returned to profitability and is expanding, in part because of recent support from Bain and others.

Romney also has holdings in Sensata Technologies, a high-tech sensor-control firm that has moved U.S. manufacturing jobs to China. A Sensata spokesman declined to comment.

Most of Romney’s holdings in Bain accounts are impossible to identify because of the confidentiality rules imposed by Bain, but his investments in Sensata and DDI were revealed through Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings.

Saul said it is unfair to link the candidate to such firms because “Governor Romney has not had any role at Bain Capital since he left over a decade ago,” and has turned over “control and overall management” of his investments to a trustee.

Under pressure, Romney recently released hundreds of pages of tax returns for 2010 and estimated returns for 2011. A comparison of those returns with his federal and state “personal financial disclosure” reports and corporate filings at the SEC revealed dozens of discrepancies.

“I don’t know what legal authority exists for the federal ethics office to allow Mitt Romney not to disclose these assets,” said Mitchell, the Republican campaign lawyer. “The statute intends for presidential candidates to publicly disclose underlying assets.”

She said she views the exception as a “double standard” that allows very wealthy candidates to avoid disclosure because they are more likely to have their assets in accounts covered by a confidentiality agreement.

By comparison, she said, her congressional clients are required to report every asset unless they qualify for one of the few exceptions described in the law.

Kerry’s assets

Romney is not the first presidential candidate to say he is unable to list underlying holdings in a private-equity account. But he is the first to do so for such a large portion of his overall assets.

“I have never seen anything like this,” said Joe Sandler, a Democratic Party lawyer who has shepherded candidates and nominees through the disclosure process for 26 years.

Sandler served as general counsel to the Democratic National Committee when Kerry ran for president.

As a senator, Kerry continues to say he cannot list assets in a Bain account held by his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, which his staff says is in compliance with Senate rules.

When he was running for president, Kerry did not list assets in Bain and half a dozen other private-equity and hedge-fund accounts, some valued at more than $1 million. A Kerry aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “In this case, Senator Kerry wasn’t a beneficiary of Heinz family trusts, had no role in their management, and pre-existing confidentiality agreements governing proprietary information were a unique issue.”

Mitchell, the Republican lawyer, and several other Washington campaign lawyers say they advise candidates to reveal underlying assets, divest them if they cannot be disclosed or choose not to seek public office.

“My clients have had fund managers squawk about their ‘proprietary information’ and I’ve always been told, ‘There is no choice; the law requires disclosure,’ ” Mitchell said.

Post research editor Alice Crites and news researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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