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"How many times can you say 'unbelievable'?" my wife asked the other
morning, as I was rattling the newspaper and again exclaiming over the
latest outrageous news from American capitalism. Maybe it was the story
about the CEO of Tyco International, a very wealthy and much admired
titan, being indicted for evading the New York State sales tax on his
art purchases. Perhaps it was the disclosure that the soaring market in
energy trading, a jewel of the new economy, was largely a fabrication
built on phony round-trip trades. Or the accusation that Perot Systems,
after designing California's deregulated energy-trading system, turned
around and showed the energy companies how to blow holes in it (and
generate those soaring electric bills for Californians).
It is unbelievable--what we've learned in the past six or eight
months about the financial system and corporate management. The
systematic deceit and imaginative greed--the sheer chintziness of
personal finagling for more loot--go well beyond the darkest hunches
harbored by resident skeptics like myself. Indeed, the Wall Street
system is now being flayed in the media almost daily by its own leading
tribunes. Listen to this summary of the scandals: "The failures of Wall
Street's compliance efforts are coming under intense scrutiny--part of a
growing awareness of how deeply flawed the US financial markets really
are. The watchdogs charged with keeping the financial world honest have
all lost credibility themselves: outside auditors who bend the rules to
please corporate clients, analysts who shape stock recommendations to
woo investment-banking customers and government regulators too timid or
overwhelmed to keep track of the frenzy." You might have read those
points in The Nation, but these words appeared on the front page
of the Wall Street Journal. A week later, another page-one
Journal story crisply explained the implications for global
investors: "Boasts about world-class corporate disclosure, bookkeeping
and regulation of American financial markets have become laughable in
the wake of Enron and Arthur Andersen scandals."
When radical critique becomes mainstream observation, change may be in
the air. In my view, this is a rare historical moment--conditions are
ripe for reforming and reordering the system, an opportunity unmatched
since World War II. How things really work is on the table, visible to
all in shocking detail, authoritatively documented by the torrent of
disclosures, with more to come. The libertarian ideology that colonized
economic affairs and politics during the past two decades (markets know
best, government is an obstacle, greed is good) has been pulled up
short. The conservative orthodoxy is vulnerable--actually breaking
down--because it has no good explanations for what we now understand to
be routine malpractice in business and finance. Political tinder is
spread all around the landscape, but who will strike the match?
The potential downside of this moment is also palpable and quite
ominous: Nothing will happen, nothing will change--nobody goes to jail,
no significant reforms are enacted. If so, the main result will be
confirmation of an already endemic public cynicism and the further
poisoning of American values. The revelations, instead of provoking a
sea change in political thinking, may be smothered by the alignments of
corporate-financial power, diverted into false reforms and complexified
to the point that media attention and public anger are exhausted. In
that event, the consequences for the country will be less obvious but
profoundly corrosive. The system would go forward in roughly the same
fashion (perhaps tarted up with public-relations rouge), and everyone
would understand that corruption is the system. In markets and in
the popular culture, the message would be: Forget that crap about
ethics--might as well take the low road, since that's how the big boys
The stakes are enormous, and it's much too early to predict the outcome.
But there's already abundant evidence that the business establishment
expects to ride out this storm and is working the usual political levers
to insure it. The politics resemble the S&L debacle in the late
1980s, when Congressional Republocrats put out lots of noise and smoke
but left the high-priced suits unruffled and stuck the public with the
bill. Our current galaxy of scandals is far more grave because it is
systemic. Anyone with courage among the Democratic presidential hopefuls
could seize this moment and reorder the agenda for 2004, but no one so
far has found the guts to break ranks with corporate power. Smoldering
public anger, however, may yet find a way to express itself, perhaps in
the fall elections, and rouse the reluctant politicians.
For now, the best hope seems to be that the bankers and business guys
will react to the fact that financial markets have been severely damaged
by the scandalous revelations, as have the high-flying moguls of
corporate America. Who can trust them? Who wants to pour more good money
after bad? In other words, this scandal stuff is bad for business,
especially bad for the faltering stock market. Henry Paulson Jr., chair
of Goldman Sachs, delivered that message recently in a sober speech
before the National Press Club and endorsed a number of useful reforms.
His remedies are insufficient (even the Journal editorial page
was happy to bless them) but are a fair start. A chorus of high-minded
anguish from elite circles might persuade Washington that this problem
does need fixing.
The scandals of Enron et al., unfortunately, must compete with another
story--the war on terrorism--that's more exciting, and threatening, than
dirty bookkeeping or the looted billions. The two crises are intertwined
in perverse ways. The smug triumphalism of Bush's unilateralist war
policy could be abruptly deflated by economic events--which probably
would be a good thing for world affairs, since Washington couldn't run
roughshod over others, but terrible for US prosperity. The financial
scandals have provided yet another chilling reason to be wary of the US
stock market, and if overseas investors decide to take their money home
in volume, the already declining dollar will fall sharply. Credit would
thus become suddenly scarce, since our debtor-nation economy relies
heavily on capital borrowed from abroad, and such a convergence would
trigger an ugly downdraft in the US economy. In that event, the
fashionable boastfulness about America, the only superpower, would
implode as swiftly as Enron's stock price.
Speech to The Democratic National Committee--Western Caucus
Saturday, May 25, 2002
"Death Star," "Get Shorty," "Fat Boy"--the revelation of Enron's trading
schemes in California have turned the Enron scandals virulent again.
Just when the White House thought the disease was in remission and
relegated to the business pages, the California scams exposed more of a
still-metastasizing cancer of corporate corruption.
Internal Enron memos reveal that it and other companies preyed on
California's energy crisis, helping to manufacture shortages and using
sham trades to drive up prices. The somnambulant Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission (FERC)--headed by Pat Wood III, "Kenny Boy" Lay's
handpicked chairman--decided that its initial finding of no market
manipulation in California was inoperable and opened a broader
investigation. With stocks plummeting and lawsuits piling up, CEOs at
Dynegy and CMS Energy resigned, as did heads of trading at Reliant
Resources and CMS.
The Bush Administration was directly implicated as the White House's
Enron stonewall began to collapse. A reluctant Joseph Lieberman,
chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, finally got
sufficient spine to issue subpoenas, stimulating the White House to
release more documents about its contacts with Enron. These showed that
the White House had lied to House investigators when it reported only
six contacts between Enron officials and the White House energy task
force. The incomplete White House submissions now admit four times that
number, with more surely to come.
Lay and the Enron executives were pressing Vice President Cheney not
only to influence the President's energy policy but also to oppose price
controls on electricity in California, even as they were gaming the
market. Cheney and Bush responded to their leading contributor by
publicly scorning price controls, while White House aides encouraged the
energy industry to organize an ad campaign in California against
controls. Cheney surely felt comfortable with Enron's shady side: As we
recently learned, when he was CEO of Halliburton and its profits were
declining, his accountants--the ubiquitous Arthur Andersen--suddenly
started counting as revenue a portion of payments that were in dispute,
without informing investors of the change.
The Administration has painted Enron as a business, not a political,
scandal. Now it is apparent that the scandal is political and
economic, showing the problems of a system with too little
accountability and too much corporate influence both in the White House
and on Capitol Hill. And with the United States having to import more
than $1 billion a day in capital to cover trade deficits, the scandals
are already a drag on investment, growth and jobs.
Neither the Administration, Congress nor the business lobby has yet
awakened to the perils. Bush retains as Army Secretary former Enron
executive Tom White, who claims no knowledge that his subsidiary was
involved in the sham trading schemes (although his own bonuses were
undoubtedly based in part on the inflated revenues that resulted). Big
Five accounting firms lobbyist Harvey Pitt remains head of the SEC, even
after repeatedly traducing elementary ethics by meeting privately with
representatives of companies under investigation by his agency. Wood
remains the head of FERC, even as legislators call on him to recuse
himself from the California investigation. Bush and House Republicans
continue to resist sensible reforms. The business and accounting lobby,
in a victory of ideology over common sense, has mobilized against
anything with teeth.
Beltway conventional wisdom dismisses the political fallout of the Enron
scandals. But Americans are furious at executives who betray their
workers and mislead small investors while plundering their companies.
Thus far their anger hasn't fixed on Washington, but it may if no one is
held accountable. It's long past time for Senate Democrats to rouse
themselves, demand the heads of White and Pitt and launch a scorching
public investigation of the Administration's complicity with Enron in
California and elsewhere. Any real reform will require displacing Enron
conservatives, with their mantra of "self-regulation" and their corrupt
politics of money. With the revelations continuing and elections coming
up, progressives should be mobilizing independently to name names,
exposing those who shield the powerful. If voters learn who the culprits
are, Enron may end up reflecting the "genius" not of capitalism but of
democracy--the people's ability to clean out the stables when the stench
gets too foul.
Some prestigious Wall Street firms may have been involved in a Ponzi scheme.
It's hard to imagine a tale of corporate mischief that would shock veteran observers of the US tobacco industry. But even the most jaded reader may raise an eyebrow at the allegations reported on page 11 that major American tobacco companies smuggled cigarettes and laundered money on a vast scale, defying US and foreign law and defrauding foreign governments of hundreds of millions in tax revenues before engineering a rewrite of the USA Patriot Act last fall to shield themselves from international liability. For this special report, the result of an investigation by The Nation, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and NOW With Bill Moyers--with support from the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute--journalist Mark Schapiro traveled to Colombia, whose state governments are suing the companies in US court, to assess the charges and to inspect the scene of the alleged smuggling operations. (NOW airs its investigative report on April 19.)
The Bush Administration ought to cooperate with authorities in Colombia and other countries in their efforts to hold US corporations accountable. It should support legislation to establish clearly the principle of jurisdiction in US courts over allegations of wrongdoing by American companies overseas. And the Justice Department should launch an investigation into the activities of US tobacco firms in Colombia to determine whether laws were broken and prosecution is warranted. It is important for the rest of us to raise the political cost of inaction. Republicans in Congress and in the White House may one day realize that with friends like Philip Morris, they don't need enemies.
The Enron "outrage," AFL-CIO president John Sweeney told a rapt crowd of several hundred workers at Milwaukee's Serb Memorial Hall, is "not the story of one corporation's abuses, but sadly it's an example of business as usual in boardrooms and executive suites all across the country." Over the coming months, at a series of town-hall meetings around America, the AFL-CIO will warn workers that they, too, could be "Enroned," and it will call for "no more business as usual."
In an unprecedented way, argues AFL-CIO corporate affairs director Ron Blackwell, the Enron scandal "opens up a channel of public discourse on issues of retirement security and corporate accountability." In the booming nineties nobody wanted to hear why corporations and capital markets had to be better regulated, and reformers were left pleading for corporations to be "socially responsible." But today, "new economy" job-hoppers as much as steelworkers have good reasons to listen to union warnings about deeply flawed 401(k) plans and Social Security privatization.
The labor movement helped win millions in severance pay for laid-off Enron workers, provided legal counsel for workers battling Enron's creditors, sued Enron executives (through union-affiliated Amalgamated Bank) on behalf of pension funds that lost hundreds of millions of dollars in Enron's collapse and helped ex-Enron workers--both union and nonunion--tell Congress and the public how they were misused. The AFL-CIO requested new Securities and Exchange Commission rules and forced four Enron directors to withdraw from renomination at other corporate and public boards. Now labor is challenging Enron director Frank Savage's renomination to Lockheed Martin's board, sending the message that independent directors have a public trust.
Besides supporting auditor reform, the AFL-CIO is promoting legislation to strengthen the rights of workers in 401(k) plans--to a point. Senator Jon Corzine, backed by the Pension Rights Center, initially proposed prohibiting employees from holding more than 20 percent of their employer's stock in their plans. But after complaints from unions representing some workers who had bet big with their employers' stock, like pilots and GE employees, the AFL-CIO backed Senator Ted Kennedy's legislation, which places a less stringent limit on the employees' 401(k) holdings of their employers' stock but which, quite importantly, would require equal worker and employer representation in governing the plans. Enron worker Dary Ebright, who lost $300,000 from his 401(k), argues that limits make sense. "If that had been in place," he said in Milwaukee, "I wouldn't be here today."
Sweeney hopes that unions can use votes on Enron-related reforms to draw lines in this year's elections showing what candidates put first--corporations or workers. The AFL-CIO attacked Republican Representative John Boehner's legislation, passed in April, for "wip[ing] out existing retirement protections for workers under the guise of responding to" Enron. The House bill would permit investment firms to advise workers about financial products, like mutual funds, from which those firms profit--precisely the kind of 1990s conflict of interest that is under investigation at several Wall Street brokerages. While providing limited protections for workers and preserving executive privileges, the House bill would also make it easier for corporations to exclude most employees from retirement plans. Labor's advocacy for Enron workers and retirement security could also strengthen organizing, including efforts among white-collar workers, by sparking a more "enlightened" view of a collective voice at work, as it did with former Enron vice president Dennis Vegas, now a union enthusiast.
But a budding labor scandal threatens the movement's credibility on corporate accountability. It appears that a few labor leaders, sitting on the board of ULLICO, parent of Union Labor Life Insurance Company, personally profited from privileged deals in the Enronlike boom and bust of telecommunications upstart Global Crossing, while their unions' pension funds were denied the same opportunity. Robert Georgine, president of ULLICO and former president of the AFL-CIO's building and construction trades department, former Iron Workers president Jake West, Plumbers president Martin Maddaloni and Carpenters president Douglas McCarron are among those who got windfalls of several hundred thousand dollars. In March Sweeney, who did not take part in the deal, called on ULLICO, like Enron, to appoint an independent committee and counsel to investigate, but in mid-April Georgine said he would take a "somewhat different" approach. "We're not going to ask Enron to live by one set of standards and ULLICO to live by another," Sweeney insisted. Many union officials say they were shocked and disgusted by the news, a reminder that "no more business as usual" is a widely applicable slogan, even within union ranks.
Uncovering the industry's multibillion-dollar global smuggling network.
It has come to this: The investigation of Enron as a political scandal appears for now to depend on Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Enron Democrat who bagged Enron campaign contributions and who worked hard to block accounting reforms. Lieberman's committee agreed to issue subpoenas seeking information that could shed light on Enron contacts with the White House, but the question is, How hard is he willing to push?
For months the White House and the Republicans have put out the message that Enron is nothing but a business scandal, a strategy that seems to have paid off, judging by the dwindling media coverage. But the lack of coverage doesn't mean that the political aspects of Enron have been thoroughly probed. Far from it.
In a letter to Dan Burton, the Republican chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, Henry Waxman, the senior Democrat on the panel, noted many episodes that warrant scrutiny. Among them: Enron-friendly appointments to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; Vice President Cheney's timely condemning of electricity price caps during the California energy crisis (see John Nichols on page 14); meetings between Enron execs and Clinton officials; and Congressional passage in 2000 of legislation exempting energy derivative contracts from federal oversight. Army Secretary Thomas White, who previously headed an Enron venture that engaged in fraudulent accounting practices, failed to disclose all his financial ties to the company. And just-released documents from the Energy Department, forced out by public-interest-group lawsuits, show that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham met with dozens of business representatives and Bush contributors--and no consumer or conservation groups--while he was developing the Bush energy plan. But Burton, to no one's surprise, turned down Waxman's proposed investigation, and other House Republicans, again no surprise, have been more eager to jump on Enron's and Arthur Andersen's funny numbers than on those firms' political connections.
In the Senate, the Democrats have not shown much taste for this kind of probe either, at least until recently. On March 21 Lieberman announced that the Governmental Affairs Committee, which he chairs, is issuing twenty-nine subpoenas seeking information on contacts between the companies and the federal government. The subpoenas--addressed to Enron, Arthur Andersen and twenty-seven past and present members of Enron's board--request materials regarding Enron's communications with the White House and eight federal agencies, starting in January 1992. Lieberman also said his committee will send letters (not subpoenas) to the White House and the US Archivist asking for similar information. Those subpoenaed have until April 12 to respond. Lieberman's staff is quick to note that his investigation targets Enron, not the White House. And the subpoenas and letters are limited in their scope: They do not ask for Enron files on its efforts to develop political muscle. But the subpoenas and letters could produce information on how the Bush and Clinton administrations responded to Enron's attempts to gain political influence.
The Enron mess offers a view into a world where policy is increasingly shaped by money. Few members of Congress, of either party, want to run down that rabbit hole. But Enron is a political scandal, and those who want it investigated should press Lieberman to chase this bunny as far as it goes.
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.
Corzine: You set the right context.
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