News and Features
Corzine: You set the right context.
Thomas White, the former Enron vice chairman appointed by George W. Bush to be Secretary of the Army, should resign immediately. The case against White is self-evident. Touted as "one of the most outstanding managers in corporate America" by Enron's favorite senator, Phil Gramm, he was named Army Secretary, promising to bring "sound business practices" to the Pentagon. But White's entire business experience was at Enron, where he participated directly in the lies and mismanagement that resulted in its bankruptcy and the betrayal of investors and employees. Enron's business practices generally, and White's in particular, are the last thing that should be inflicted upon the Department of the Army.
Before being named Army Secretary, White was vice chairman of a venture called Enron Energy Services from 1998 through May 2001. He was paid $5.5 million in salary and bonuses in his last year alone and walked off with stock and options valued at about $50 million and homes in Naples, Florida, and Aspen, Colorado, worth more than $5 million apiece.
Touted as a burgeoning profit center, Enron Energy Services reported a pretax operating profit of $103 million on revenues of $4.6 billion in 2000. But EES was a fraud, hemorrhaging money while covering up its losses with accounting maneuvers. Its profit in 2000, according to Enron vice president Sherron Watkins, was created by counting ersatz financial trading gains from one of the infamous off-budget Raptor partnerships. The recently released special investigation of Enron's board of directors concluded that those transactions violated accounting rules. White and EES chairman Lou Pai made millions, but the venture they ran was so mismanaged that in February 2001 Enron executives brought in another leadership team to clean up the mess.
Enron Energy Services was set up to compete with public utilities in selling energy to large enterprises like JC Penney, the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and the US Army. Enron would sign long-term contracts to provide energy at a sharply reduced fixed price. It would then install energy-saving devices to lower its clients' energy needs and use its trading savvy to supply that energy at bargain prices.
From the beginning, though, Enron's follow-through was something of a joke. "They knew how to get a product out there, but they didn't know how to run a business," former EES employee Tony Dorazio told the New York Times. Glenn Dickson, an EES director laid off in December, charged that White and Pai "are definitely responsible for the fact that we sold huge contracts with little thought as to how we were going to manage the risk or deliver the service."
Perhaps Pai and White were more concerned about selling than fulfilling contracts because they were making their money on the front end, benefiting from Enron's aggressive accounting practices. When Enron signed a ten-year contract with a customer, it would project its revenues and profits over the ten years and book all of them as received in the first year of the sale. This "mark to market" accounting is a generally accepted accounting practice--but only when the revenues and costs can be reliably projected. EES had to predict future energy prices, the pace of energy deregulation in different states and the conservation savings of its customers over many years. It then paid its managers and sales personnel bonuses based on those projections. This was an irresistible invitation to what former EES employee Jeff Gray called "illusory earnings."
And illusion there was. "It became obvious that EES has been doing deals for two years and was losing money on almost all the deals they had booked," wrote former employee Margaret Ceconi in an e-mail to Enron's board in August, warning that more than $500 million in losses were being hidden in Enron's wholesale energy division. Enron used its bankruptcy to walk away from EES's losing deals and dismissed most of its 1,000 employees.
Where was White during all this? His emerging defense is that he was out of the loop. He didn't do numbers. He provided a dashing can-do military figure for the customers, a rainmaker who helped land the deals. And EES was tasked to show growth. Bidding for a fifteen-year, $1.3 billion contract with Eli Lilly, it paid Lilly $50 million up front to seal the deal. The contracts could be projected as profitable, even if they were to bleed money in the succeeding years. So long as EES kept expanding fast enough and the contracts kept rolling in, no one need know. Under White's leadership, Enron Energy Services turned into a classic Ponzi scheme.
White still maintains that EES was "a great business...there were no accounting irregularities that I was aware of." It is hard to imagine a clearer self-indictment. Either he knew that EES was a lie and is potentially guilty of fraud, or he was oblivious to the lie and thus is utterly incompetent to manage the Department of the Army with its annual budget of $91 billion.
Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen argues that White is a walking conflict of interest. He came to the Army pledging to get it out of the energy business, even as Enron was bidding to supply the military with energy. He pledged to sever all financial ties with Enron but elected privately to receive an annuity payment, part of which came from the company. Enron's bankruptcy ended this conflict, but it doesn't put an end to White's complicity in a scheme from which he pocketed millions while running his venture into the ground, betraying the trust of investors and employees alike.
Ultimately Enron is about values, about integrity and responsibility. It is a story of executives who cashed out more than $1.1 billion in stock while misleading employees and investors. Thomas White is one of those executives. Personal responsibility should apply to the powerful as well as the weak. If it means more than election-year campaign rhetoric for this Administration, then it is time for Thomas White to go.
You have to hand it to George Bush the senior for hustle. Back in 1998, he took at least $80,000 in stock from Global Crossing in return for speaking for the company in Tokyo.
Enron, maker of big promises and big donations, stands revealed as a four-flusher.
(A Houston version of the Irish folk song)
Oh, Kenny Boy, your friends are disappearing.
They don't know you, much less your kvetchy wife.
Yes, it's sad when pols that you've been shmeering
Now hope that you'll get twenty years to life.
They sang your song: They passed deregulation.
They passed your laws. They bent the regs your way.
But now they track your every obfuscation.
Old Kenny Boy, their Kenny Boy's now Mr. Lay.
The Texas company has been a scandal in other countries for a long time.
As the House of Representatives was about to begin debating a modest campaign finance reform bill, former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was taking the Fifth before the Senate commerce committee. As the disgraced exec sat grim-faced at the witness table, Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings, chairman of the committee, used the nickname George W. Bush once conferred upon Lay, noting that there is "no better example than Kenny Boy of cash-and-carry government." Lay and Enron dumped millions of dollars into the political system--in hard-money contributions to candidates and soft-money donations to political parties--and spent millions more to hire politically wired lobbyists (including Republican Party chairman Marc Racicot) and to snag high-profile opinion leaders (like Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey) as consultants. Executives were coerced to cut campaign checks to Bush and other politicians, Republican and Democrat. The goal was to game the system in Enron's favor--in regulatory agencies, in Congress, in state capitals, in the White House.
Enron, of course, was not unique in this regard. Why else would corporate executives invest millions in candidates and parties? If they're not receiving a return, shareholders should sue. (Enron may well have received favors from federal and state officials in the months and years before the company started collapsing and became too controversial to assist; the various Enron inquiries on Capitol Hill should be digging into this.) And the system seems to be working fine for most donors and the recipients, for the flow of money keeps increasing. In 2001 the two parties bagged $151 million in soft money--the large unlimited contributions given mainly by corporations, unions and millionaires--almost a 50 percent increase over 1999, the last nonelection year. The Republicans out-collected Democrats, $87.8 million to $63.1 million.
The Shays-Meehan bill, at the center of the latest House campaign finance debate, called for something of a ban on soft money for the national parties--a good move. But the legislation, similar to the McCain-Feingold bill in the Senate, still contained soft-money loopholes and, just as unfortunate, raised the limits on certain hard-money donations. If Shays-Meehan had been enacted years ago, it would have done little to slow down the Enron racketeers. That's why it's important for the debate to move beyond Shays-Meehan/McCain-Feingold. The long-term solution must be a system of public finance in which candidates can receive most of their campaign dollars in clean money, that is, funds that come from the no quid/no quo public till rather than the private pockets of the rent-a-politician crowd. The first run of clean-money systems in Maine and Arizona showed that such an alternative can work: There were more contested races, more women and minorities running and a more level playing field. The vast majority of both states' legislators and statewide officials will run "clean" this year, and it looks as though the Massachusetts Supreme Court will force the implementation of that state's clean election law for this year's election. Legislation is advancing in several other states.
In the past few years, the reform debate in Washington has been too modest. The authors of the reform bills deserve credit for pushing against a mighty tide of self-interest, but Enron shows how far special interests will go to rig the system. True reform has to go as far.
Is the Enron story one of outrageous mendacity or stupefying ignorance?
This letter was originally published on January 29, 2002 at www.michaelmoore.com
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