Cover Story


Official Washington launches a full-court press into the sleazy accounting schemes behind the nation's largest bankruptcy. But Enron's questionable business practices included trying to profit from government suppression of America's high-energy lifestyle and economy

Issue: "Enron's collapse," Jan. 26, 2002

in Washington-Enron chief executive officer Kenneth Lay passed through the White House gate and strolled into the Oval Office in July for a meeting with the president and vice president. He already knew that he and the administration were on the same side of a controversial debate and that his company had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the president's party over three years. He also knew that if the president's policy were written right and Congress passed it, the "agreement will be good for Enron stock!!!"-as a company memo would later say. But this wasn't July 2001, and the president and vice president weren't George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The Lay meeting came in 1997, and the Enron executive was meeting with Bill Clinton and Al Gore to discuss an upcoming international conference on global warming in Kyoto, Japan. Mr. Lay was pushing a "market-based" solution to the supposed crisis of "global warming." In a memo a month later, Mr. Lay boasted to employees that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore had "solicited" his opinions on climate policy "in advance of a climate treaty to be negotiated at an international conference." Throughout the second half of the 1990s, Enron played a pivotal role in lobbying the Clinton administration-successfully-and congressional Democrats-unsuccessfully-on what became the Kyoto treaty. That treaty would have required the United States and other large Western nations to accept dramatic restrictions on America's high-energy lifestyle through heavy regulations and energy taxes. The proposed treaty threw many economists and entire industries into fits of anxiety. The coal industry worried about its future existence because coal power emits carbon dioxide, the prime target of the treaty's restrictions. Automakers were concerned about the government forcing them to build more small (and less safe) cars, because smaller cars, whose occupants are highly vulnerable in accidents, use less fuel and emit less carbon into the atmosphere than do larger cars. Free-market economists argued that the government had no business controlling people's energy use, and that if it tried to do so, it would cripple an economy built on affordable energy. But the treaty would have stacked the energy deck in Enron's favor. Company executives saw profitable ways to exploit a government-enforced regime of carbon-dioxide restrictions. Such rules would create more demand for Enron's "cleaner" natural gas (it had the largest pipeline system outside Russia's Gazprom). Also, the treaty would give governments carbon-dioxide emissions "rights," which Enron hoped would become tradable commodities it could broker. Think of these rights as ration cards. Nations that don't use all their rations could sell them to nations that need more-and Enron would make the deal, and a nice commission. In further betting on a heavy regulatory scenario, Enron also became a major player in the wind-power and solar-power industries. An internal Enron memo declared that the Kyoto treaty, if approved worldwide, would "do more to promote Enron's business than almost any other regulatory initiative outside of restructuring the energy and natural gas industries in Europe and the United States." Despite a 95-0 Senate resolution opposing any carbon treaty that would harm the U.S. economy, Enron gave $420,000 in contributions to Democrats over a three-year period, hoping to expedite the 1997 treaty. "Both behind the scenes and through other groups Enron has aggressively lobbied for Kyoto since before it was Kyoto because they'd make billions," explained Christopher Horner, counsel to the Cooler Heads Coalition. Instead, the Kyoto campaign is almost forgotten, Enron employees and stockholders have seen their jobs and holdings vanish, and the New York Stock Exchange on Jan. 15 delisted the company's stock. Enron had announced the largest bankruptcy in American history on Dec. 2. The Washington part of the story became intense on Jan. 10, when White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters at his mid-morning briefing that two Cabinet secretaries had been approached in late October by Enron's Mr. Lay, who wanted them to help prop up his flagging company's credit ratings. Two hours later, all the briefing room seats were filled (typically, they aren't), as reporters peppered Mr. Fleischer with 53 Enron questions in 30 minutes. Some reporters like NBC's David Gregory were smirking and shaking their heads in disbelief at the podium. Several Texas reporters complained that they'd waited months for these revelations. Typically unflappable but on the defensive, Mr. Fleischer insisted: "I haven't heard anything in here, from anybody, suggesting wrongdoing. You've only said contact, communication, as if there is something wrong, inherently, with contact and communication, and there is not." Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill both rejected Mr. Lay's pleas to intervene, but reporters found it difficult to imagine that Secretary Evans, the president's best friend, would learn about a potentially impending bankruptcy of an enormous Houston-based firm and not relate that news to Mr. Bush for more than two months. (Mr. Evans later said he passed the news on to Chief of Staff Andrew Card.) Official Washington launched a full-court press into Enron's spectacular failure. In addition to actions at the Commerce and Labor Departments, the Justice Department announced a criminal probe, but Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself since he had received $57,499 from Enron as a Senate candidate in 1999 and 2000. Six congressional committees have announced probes, with several of them slated to begin hearings early next month. The administration's cold shoulder to Enron didn't fit a Thomas Nast cartoon image of campaign-cash corruption, but Democrats liked the emerging political landscape. "Firm's Saga Could Dog Bush in Election Year," predicted the front page of The Washington Post. The liberal Center for Public Integrity declared Enron the top "career patron" of George W. Bush, and Democrats gleefully connected that title to the company's sordid end, when top executives sold off their holdings, but employees were prevented from selling their Enron-dominated portfolios, heavily encouraged by Enron brass, before they went down the drain. Now buried under a wave of congressional subpoenas, Enron officials will have to explain to investigators what happened to $30 billion in shareholder value, which evaporated throughout 2001 as their sleazy accounting practices came to light. Through off-book subsidiaries with Star Wars-type names like "Chewco," they hid large debts from investors and Wall Street analysts. House investigators prodded the firm's auditors, from Arthur Andersen LLP, to admit they had destroyed thousands of Enron-related documents before they could be seen by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Democratic hopes over the potential to make the story "Bush's Whitewater" ignored Enron's longtime wooing of the Clinton team and liberal environmental groups. The heat on the White House subsided a bit once they and other Republicans began pressing reporters to notice that Enron had made political contributions to 187 members of the House of Representatives and 71 senators, including Democrats as well as Republicans. A prominent example is New York Sen. Charles Schumer. Enron backed his 1998 Senate campaign against incumbent Al D'Amato, and two years later, Sen. Schumer co-authored a bill to restructure electricity markets in a way that Enron favored. Former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin called Treasury undersecretary Peter Fisher last November to plead Enron's case, to no avail. Enron benefited throughout the 1990s from Clinton administration boosterism. In 1994, the government's Export-Import Bank approved a $302 million loan to promote Enron's investment in a power plant in Dabhol, India. President Clinton deputized his chief of staff, Mack McLarty, to monitor the deal. (Enron soon afterward donated $100,000 to the Democrats.) Donations allowed Enron executives to accompany Cabinet secretaries Ron Brown and Hazel O'Leary on trips promoting American business abroad, and in the Clinton years, the company attracted a staggering $4 billion from the government's Overseas Private Investment Corporation. The leading Democratic impresario of Bush-Enron connections, Rep. Henry Waxman, has been pressing for many months to expose conversations between energy companies and Vice President Dick Cheney's task force that devised an energy plan that was announced last May, but remains mired in the Congress. Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute, says that's odd since Enron received "stone cold nothing" of its hopes for electricity "deregulation" in the Cheney-developed plan. While Enron lobbyists have largely failed to get results with Congress, they had great success in persuading more than 20 states to adopt supposed electricity "deregulation" like the controversial California power system. Mr. Taylor bluntly declared, "In 10 years, I've spent dozens of hours in meetings and on panels and programs with Enron representatives. I found that my bitterest ideological foes weren't in the government or the public interest groups, but in Enron." He chafes at the idea that Enron was considered a force for "jungle capitalism" while it sought a system that would tightly regulate electricity transmission to help its own bottom line: "They were ideological cross dressers." Enron's campaign to please green groups included all kinds of ad hoc gatherings. Not only did Enron participate in the President's Council for Sustainable Development (chaired by Clinton EPA boss Carol Browner), but Enron was active in bankrolling and belonging to the Clean Power Group, which included the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club. It helped the Union of Concerned Scientists offer a "Citizens Summit on Global Climate Change." Enron was also very active in supporting the Environmental Defense Fund, including a Smithsonian exhibit on global warming that was touted as viewed by 4.5 million people in person and on the Internet. Enron CEO Kenneth Lay also served on the board of the Heinz Endowments, which have given major awards to environmental radicals like Paul Ehrlich. (Mr. Ehrlich first became famous by falsely predicting there would be a major global "die-back" in the 1970s due to overpopulation and food shortages.) Republicans aren't likely to inject these connections into Enron hearings and force major green groups on the defensive for taking money out of the pockets of Enron shareholders for negligible political results. Instead, they'll be working with Democrats like Sen. Carl Levin who have emphasized tightening up the regulations on accounting firms and rewriting pension-fund guarantees in hopes that the Enron debacle won't repeat itself. But the Enron story may define how President Bush and President Clinton are compared as ethical leaders in the history books, so TeamBush needs to make a stronger distinction between capitalism and corporate lawbreakers who give capitalism a bad name.

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