WASHINGTON – Former Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who represented Maryland for 30 years in the Senate as a leader of financial regulatory reform and drafted the first article of impeachment against Republican President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal as a congressman, has died, his son said. He was 87.
Sarbanes, who retired from the Senate in 2006 and also served six years as a U.S. representative, was a Democrat known for avoiding the spotlight while quietly pursuing liberal goals.
Rep. John Sarbanes, the late senator's son, said his father died peacefully Sunday night in Baltimore.
“Our family is grateful to know that we have the support of Marylanders who meant so much to him and whom he was honored to serve," he said in a statement. "Following state, local and public health guidance amid the COVID-19 pandemic, our family will hold a private service in the coming days.”
The statement did not reveal the cause of death.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Maryland and all Americans lost “a leader and public servant of dignity and principle,” who worked tirelessly over 40 years to bring “integrity, transparency and oversight to Washington.”
“In Congress, Paul Sarbanes was respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle for his humility, tenacity and keen intellect," Pelosi said in a statement.
Sarbanes entered politics in 1966 with a successful run for Maryland’s House of Delegates before reaching Congress four year later.
As a House member, Sarbanes was chosen by fellow Democrats to introduce an article of impeachment for obstruction of justice against Nixon. Sarbanes later said there was no joy in taking steps to bring down a president, but “somebody had to do it.” Nixon resigned before the impeachment proceedings ended.
Known for his cerebral and self-effacing manner, Sarbanes focused during much of his career on complex and seemingly humdrum economic issues. That background helped him drive the legislation that became the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, designed to make corporate executives more accountable. Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, co-authored the bill with Sarbanes.
The law was inspired partly by the 2001 bankruptcy filing of Houston-based Enron Corp. The energy company had become an investor favorite based on amazing financial results that turned out to have been based on accounting fraud. Sarbanes contended that accounting firms and corporations could not be trusted to police themselves.
“We are facing a crisis of confidence that is eroding the public’s trust in our markets and poses a real threat to our economic health,” Sarbanes said in 2002 while advocating for the legislation.
The law required companies to report regularly on the strength of their internal financial controls and fix any problems. It also mandated more financial disclosure and raised the criminal penalties for securities fraud.
After President George W. Bush signed the bill in July 2002, Sarbanes questioned whether broad discretion given to the Securities and Exchange Commissioner to implement many of its provisions would produce meaningful enforcement.
“I’d like for the jury to sort of watch,” Sarbanes said.
In 2010, the Supreme Court struck down part of Sarbanes-Oxley. The justices voted 5-4 that the law violated the Constitution’s separation-of-powers mandate. The court said the president, or others appointed by him, must be able to remove members of a board created by the legislation to tighten oversight of internal corporate controls and outside auditors.
He also was known as an advocate for the Chesapeake Bay, and environmental groups praised him as a champion of the nation's largest estuary.
Sarbanes, the son of Greek immigrants, was a native of Salisbury on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He attended Princeton University after graduating from public schools. He was a Rhodes Scholar at England’s Oxford University and earned a law degree at Harvard University in 1960.
He moved immediately into the public sector, serving in quick succession as a clerk to a federal appellate judge, an aide to the chairman of the presidential Council of Economic Advisers and executive director of Baltimore’s Charter Revision Commission.
He won his Senate seat in 1976, defeating former Sen. Joseph Tydings in the Democratic primary and then easily unseating incumbent Republican Sen. J. Glenn Beall in the general election.
Opponents used adjectives such as “stealth” to describe Sarbanes’ political career. Supporters said he worked quietly and thoughtfully, eschewing the spotlight for a behind-the-scenes approach.
“I don’t run around beating my drum all the time,” Sarbanes said. “The objective is to get the thing done and accomplished. The recognition ought to be secondary.”