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Bill Press is a syndicated columnist, the co-host of CNN's Crossfire, which airs Monday-Friday at 7:30 p.m., and author of the newly-published book Spin This!

Bill Press: Enron makes Whitewater look like peanuts

By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- Something smells rotten in Houston. Energy giant Enron, which used to brag about becoming the world's biggest company, now holds the record for the country's biggest ever bankruptcy filing.

The human impact is staggering. Some 4500 employees are out of work. Tens of thousands of investors watched their Enron stock sink suddenly from $83 per share to 26 cents, wiping out $60 billion of stockholder value. And those 11,000 employees whose 401K funds were invested exclusively in Enron -- and who were forbidden by Enron's own rules from diversifying -- today have no retirement plan at all.

But Enron may be more than the world's biggest corporate disaster. It could also be the world's biggest case of corporate criminality.

Enron's demise wasn't due to business factors like strong competition, a shrinking market or a lagging economy. It was due to deceitful, and perhaps illegal, games played by corporate executives: diverting funds into secret partnerships, cooking the books to keep those deals secret, lying to investors and employees about the financial health of the company, while selling their own stock to make sure they wouldn't be hurt when the whole house of cards collapsed.

Unlike thousands of employees, for example, Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay isn't crying the blues. He cashed out on $123 million worth of stock options in 2000 alone, and this year pocketed another $25 million.

Even as the company started falling apart, other executives were rewarded. Just days before filing for bankruptcy, Enron handed $55 million out to some 500 senior officials: an average $110,000 bonus for screwing up.

Yes, something smells rotten in Houston. But something smells rotten in Washington, too -- because both the rise and fall of Enron are closely linked to the political fortunes of George W. Bush.

For years, Ken Lay and George Bush have been joined at the hip, two free-wheeling Texas buddies. One helped the other succeed in "bidness;" the other helped his pal make it big in politics.

Consider the Bush-Enron connections. Enron could never have happened anywhere but Texas. It was only able to grow so big, so fast, because of the deregulation of energy companies instituted by then-Gov. George W. Bush.

And Ken Lay rewarded his friend. He and Enron together were Bush's biggest contributor, giving $2 million to his campaigns for governor and president. Lay also loaned Bush his corporate jet. In 2000, Lay sent a memo to company employees, suggesting that they contribute personal funds to Bush through the company's political action committee: $500 for low-level managers; $5000 for senior executives.

Once in the White House, Bush responded generously.

Ken Lay was the only energy executive to meet privately with Vice President Dick Cheney to help shape the administration's new energy policy -- which included a recommendation to break up monopoly control of electricity transmission networks, a longtime Enron goal.

For a while, Bush even considered naming Lay his Commerce Secretary. Fortuitously, that appointment never happened. But he did surround himself with Enron partisans. Lawrence B. Lindsey, Bush's top economic adviser, was an Enron consultant.

Robert Zoellick, U.S. Trade Representative, served on Enron's advisory council. I. Lewis Libby, Cheney's Chief of Staff, was a major Enron stockholder. Thomas White, Secretary of the Army, was an Enron executive for over 10 years and held millions of dollars in stocks and options when appointed.

Karl Rove, chief White House political adviser, owned between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of Enron stock when he met with Ken Lay in the White House to discuss Enron's problems with federal regulators. And, until he was named Republican National Chairman last week, Marc Racicot was Enron's Washington lobbyist.

No wonder the Bush White House refused to help California solve its energy crisis last Spring. California's problems were caused by Enron's suddenly inflating the price of electricity, forcing blackouts throughout the state. But Bush refused to intervene to help consumers. He wouldn't do anything to hurt his pal's big business.

Indeed, the Bush-Enron connections are so close, it's hard to tell whether Enron is the house that Bush built or Bush is the house that Enron built. We know George Bush and friends were major players in Enron's corporate success. Were they also major facilitators of Enron's corporate wrongdoing?

Either way -- and war or no war -- the whole mess demands a congressional investigation.

If Congress and Ken Starr could spend two years investigating a 20-year old $100,000 real estate investment in Arkansas, they can and must examine a multi-billion dollar energy scam in Texas, where millions lost their shirts.

Enron makes Whitewater look like peanuts.


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