Help

Nation Topics - Corporations

Topic Page

Nation Topics - Corporations

Articles

News and Features

They helped set the stage for the current scandals.

In early March, the Bush Administration adopted a policy that the steel industry as well as the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) have long been agitating for--tariffs on steel imports. The official reason is to give the industry some "breathing space," so it can restructure while shielded from foreign competition. It's more likely that Bush wants to carry some important industrial states in 2004.

Thanks to NAFTA, Canada and Mexico are exempted, as are some poorer countries. Imports from elsewhere will face initial duties ranging from 8 percent to 30 percent, though the levels will decline over the next three years as they are gradually phased out. This is less than what labor and management wanted, but it's still striking coming from a professed free-trader. The Clinton Administration never did anything remotely like it--and if it had, Wall Street, which was unfazed by the Bush announcement, would have panicked about the protectionist threat.

Loud complaints did come from abroad, though. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, usually found waving the Stars and Stripes with hysterical glee, denounced the move as "unacceptable and wrong." He urged the industry to restructure rather than hide behind trade barriers--exactly the prescription the United States usually gives other countries (with similar indifference to displaced workers). Blair was joined by politicians, businesspeople, unions and pundits around the world--and by Bush's own frequently indiscreet Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, who told the Council on Foreign Relations that the tariffs would cost more jobs in steel-using industries than they could save in steel.

Indeed the industry is in dire shape. It's lost 35,000 jobs in the past two years. Sixteen producers are operating in bankruptcy. Steel employed 1.5 percent of US workers in 1950, 0.6 percent in 1980 and 0.2 percent in 2000, versus 0.1 percent today. It's hard to believe three years of protection can reverse that long slide.

Clearly the Administration structured its tariffs with an eye on the political map. The kinds of steel offered maximum protection happen to be produced in the electoral battlegrounds of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. There's a political pattern to the victims too: Turkey, an important factor in the likely war on Iraq, was spared. Brazil, key to any future hemispheric free-trade agreement, got off relatively lightly, as did Russia, key to many things. The most affected producers are in South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan and the European Union. Most have filed complaints with the World Trade Organization. The EU is also threatening to retaliate against US steel and textiles, which could limit Bush's political gain in steel country and alienate the textile-intensive South.

Defenders of the tariffs--from US Steel to the union-friendly Economic Policy Institute--argue that everyone subsidizes and protects its steel industry except us. As a result, the US steel industry is getting killed. So the tariffs are necessary to defend it.

Not everyone agrees with this picture of America as victimized innocent. According to the EU's count, the United States has imposed more than 150 measures over the years to protect steel. More than subsidized foreign competition, the US steel industry is suffering from the high value of the dollar, recession, global overcapacity and high pension and healthcare costs.

The United States could have filed a complaint with the WTO, but it would have had a hard time proving its case. Another multilateral route was available too--negotiations to reduce world steel capacity by some 12 percent are well under way. But the Administration and its supporters claim that having the tariffs will strengthen Washington's negotiating hand.

The USWA seems to have no idea of how offensive foreign workers find Bush's big stick policy. Most of the affected countries have higher unemployment rates than ours. The EU, Japan and Latin America haven't seen a boom in decades, and Asia is still recovering from its 1997 financial crisis. Gary Hubbard of the Steelworkers' Washington office conceded that the EU and Japanese unions were annoyed but wasn't sure whether the USWA had consulted at all with its counterparts abroad (no one had ever asked the question before). So much for solidarity.

It's nice to imagine another world, where we protect workers, not their jobs. If we had a good system of income support, retraining, job placement and job creation, we wouldn't have to disemploy foreign workers to fight what's probably a losing battle to save jobs here. Sweden has long had such an active labor market policy, as it's called. Workers wouldn't have to fear innovation if they knew they wouldn't end up on the sidewalk. But that's not the way the world works these days. It's all about market solutions--except when George W. Bush is cruising for votes.

Arriving in San Francisco after a ten-hour drive through a snowstorm, Lucas Benitez sounds earnest and exhausted.

Tom White, who pocketed millions running Enron Energy Services, one of Enron's more egregious frauds, remains Army Secretary even after lying to the Senate about his Enron holdings. White continues to say he didn't mislead investors about EES's profitability even as his former Enron employees describe how he goaded them to pretend the unit was making money when it was losing money.

Harvey Pitt, lawyer-lobbyist for the big five accounting firms, continues to serve his former clients as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, where he defends self-regulation. George W. Bush rebuffed Treasury Secretary O'Neill's recommendation that executives and accountants be held personally responsible for misleading investors, relying instead on Pitt's SEC to oversee executives--even as his budget starves the agency of resources needed merely to retain its staff, much less police the Fortune 500.

Enron's Ken Lay and Andrew Fastow remain at large, neither yet having seen the inside of a grand jury room. The secret partners in the off-balance-sheet enterprises remain undisclosed. The Justice Department--in an investigation headed by Larry Thompson, whose former law firm represented both Enron and Arthur Andersen--appears to be joining Pitt's SEC in pushing Arthur Andersen to cop a plea and settle claims before discovery.

The Bush Administration is staffed with more than fifty high-level appointees with ties to Enron, as documented by Steve Pizzo in a study for American Family Voices. It dismisses all Enron inquiries with imperial disdain. The President stonewalls Government Accounting Office efforts to gain access to Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force records while he continues to peddle the Enron energy plan, which lards more subsidies on big oil companies. Republicans held unemployed workers hostage to win passage of the corporate tax giveaways that Ken Lay lobbied for personally. And Bush continues to argue for turning Social Security into 401(k)-type retirement accounts like the ones that evaporated on Enron employees.

Each day brings another revelation of Enron's remarkable penetration of the Bush Administration, but the White House refuses to reveal the contacts its appointees had with Enron officials and executives. One result is that too little attention has been paid to the delay in imposing price controls when energy companies, led by Enron, were gouging California and other Western states in last year's ersatz "energy crisis." Bush brags that his Administration did nothing to help Enron, but holding off on price controls bought enough time for Lay and other executives to unload substantial amounts of stock.

The Administration's attempt to dismiss Enron as a business scandal, the case of a rogue company run by desperado executives, is laughable on its face. After all, Enron's "Kenny Boy" Lay was Bush's most generous financial patron. Enron's business plan, such as it was, depended on political favors. Enron's freedom from regulation was the result of political fixes. And now the fate of Enron's policies and principals depends in large part on political calculations.

Yet the Bush dodge seems to be working. The press has done its job, but Democrats have failed to find their voices or their spines. If Enron had been a Clinton patron and Gore was in the White House, Congressional Republicans would have forced a special counsel and resignations of compromised officials weeks ago.

Concerned citizens--and Democrats with a pulse--should take off the gloves. White and Pitt should be forced to resign. The criminal investigation should be taken out of the hands of compromised Republican appointees and placed under an independent prosecutor. Enron's energy, tax and privatization plans should be exposed and defeated. And fundamental reforms to protect investors, defend retirement accounts, shut down tax havens, and hold corporate executives, accountants and lawyers personally and criminally accountable are long overdue. For that to happen, voters will have to teach a lesson to the Enron conservatives of both parties who continue to betray their trust.

The Houston company was part of the biggest "big idea" of the past decade.

Did George W. Bush once have a financial relationship with Enron? In 1986, according to a publicly available record, the two drilled for oil together--at a time when Bush was a none-too-successful oil man in Texas, and his oil venture was in dire need of help. (In early March The Nation broke the story on its website; two days later the New York Times covered this Bush-Enron deal.)

In 1986 Spectrum 7, a privately owned oil company chaired by Bush, faced serious trouble. Two years earlier Bush had merged his failing Bush Exploration Company with the profitable Spectrum 7, where he was named the company's chief executive and director. Bush was paid $75,000 a year and handed 1.1 million shares, according to First Son, Bill Minutaglio's biography of Bush. Bush ended up owning about 15 percent of Spectrum 7. By the end of 1985 Spectrum's fortunes had reversed. With oil prices falling, the company was losing money and on the verge of collapse. To save the firm, Bush began negotiations to sell Spectrum 7 to Harken Energy, a large Dallas-based energy company mostly owned by billionaire George Soros, Saudi businessman Abdullah Taha Baksh and the Harvard Management Corporation.

In September 1986 Spectrum 7 and Harken announced a plan under which Spectrum 7 shareholders would receive Harken stock. Bush said publicly that Spectrum 7 would continue to operate in Midland, Texas, as a wholly owned subsidiary of Harken and that he would become an active member of Harken's board of directors. As Minutaglio reports, the deal would give Bush about $600,000 in Harken shares and $50,000 to $120,000 a year in consultant's fees. It also would provide $2.25 million in Harken stock for a company with a net value of close to $1.8 million.

As the details of the Spectrum-Harken acquisition--which Bush badly needed--were being finalized, Enron Oil and Gas Company, a subsidiary of Enron Corporation, announced on October 16, 1986, a new well producing both oil and natural gas. A press release reported that the well was producing 24,000 cubic feet of natural gas and 411 barrels of oil per day in the Belspec Fusselman Field, fifteen miles northeast of Midland. Enron held a 52 percent interest in the well. According to the announcement, 10 percent belonged to Spectrum 7. At that point, Spectrum 7 was still Bush's company. Harken's completion of the Spectrum 7 acquisition was announced in early November.

To spell it out: George W. Bush and Enron Oil and Gas were in business together in 1986--when Ken Lay was head of Enron. (Lay was named Enron chairman in February of that year.) How did this deal come about? Was this the only project in which Bush and Enron were partners? The White House did not respond to a request for information but later was quoted as saying there had been nothing unusual about the arrangement. Spokeswomen for Enron and EOG Resources (formerly Enron Oil and Gas) said they could not provide information on the well or on other possible Bush-Enron ventures.

Does the relationship between the younger Bush and Lay go back further than heretofore reported--to the mid-1980s? The deal could have happened with no contact between Lay and Bush. But most company heads would be quite interested to know that the son of a sitting Vice President had invested in one of their enterprises. Is it possible that Bush and Spectrum 7 received undue consideration from Enron? Given Enron's penchant for using political ties to win and protect business opportunities, it's tough not to wonder whether this Bush-Enron venture involved special arrangements. This is one more Enron partnership that deserves scrutiny--especially since George W. Bush failed to acknowledge it before the details became public. The Spectrum-Enron deal is either an odd historical coincidence or an indication that there's more to learn about the Bush-Enron association.

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.

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.

The Texas company has been a scandal in other countries for a long time.

Blogs

How much senior executives earn, in cash and stock, is public information. How they make it is public too. Trouble is, the two are barely brought together in reporting.

February 17, 2010

My colleague and friend John Nichols' new post appropriately lauds Rep. Donna Edwards' proposed legislation to redress the damage done by the Supreme Court in its decision in the case of Citizens United v. FEC to abandon long-standing precedent with the purpose of permitting corporations to dominate the political discourse.

February 2, 2010

The 2009 stimulus bill that was supposed to spur job creation at a sufficient rate to prevent double-digit unemployment might have done so if it had been approved at the level and with the focus intended by the serious players in the U.S. House who initially crafted a real response to the recession.

February 1, 2010

If the Democratic Party wants to lose – or, to be more precise, wants to lose badly in 2010 and 2012, it need only maintain its current loyalty to the most powerful interests on Wall Street.

January 25, 2010

Some union leaders think that the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United v. FEC -- which essentially takes the limits off campaign spending -- will give them the same flexibility and freedom to influence the process as it does corporations. What are the leaders of the labor federation thinking?

January 24, 2010

What to do about the decision by U.S. Supreme Court to -- in the words of Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold -- "(ignore) important principles of judicial restraint and respect for precedent" in order to make corporations the dominant players in American politics?

January 21, 2010