Ken Lay finally took the "perp walk" down in Houston with his hands cuffed behind his back--an inconvenience for him and also for his old Texas buddy, George W. Bush. Lay is the former Enron chairman who built the house of cards. He is now indicted on eleven criminal counts of securities fraud in the 2001 collapse of his funny-money empire. The scandal was spectacular but lost its front-page glow long ago. Too bad for the President that this had to happen just now, when Bush is desperate for a few "good news" stories.
According to the indictment, Lay harvested $217 million in profit by dumping shares in the company's wildly inflated stock, selling at the top while he continued to lie to investors, employees and everyone else who believed in the miracle energy corporation. Lay brought his minister with him to federal court, and the preacher invoked "God's blessing" for those who had been hurt. That's a nice touch--may God look after the millions who were bilked out of billions--but the gesture also reminds us of the President's holiness rhetoric. Bush looked after Ken Lay and the other corporate moguls on the upside, while they swindled the country on an epic scale. Now this task is assigned to a higher power.
The event should provide refreshing fodder for Democratic oratory at their upcoming convention. The Enron leader did not spend the night in jail, but was released on $500,000 bond (a pittance even though his wealth has diminished greatly). One can already hear Veep candidate John Edwards incorporating these facts in his "two Americas" theme: Some Americans get thrown in the slammer, some Americans get to go home. The President will probably say this case proves that the wheels of justice are turning properly, but the processes are likely to turn slowly. Ken Lay says he wants an early trial, starting in September, to clear his name. I doubt the federal prosecutors will oblige. That would keep the Enron story on the front pages through the heat of the President's fall campaign.
Above all, Lay's belated indictment reminds one of the limp response of Washington politics--Democrats included--to this historic financial crime. Enron, WorldCom and scores of other busted corporations, aided and abetted by Wall Street's leading bankers, represent the largest, most fraudulent assemblage of corrupted practices since the epic meltdown that followed 1929. Trillions were lost and the economy was deeply wounded, not to mention the families who lost jobs and savings. The federal establishment responded to all this with alarmed rhetoric but did very little to reform the fundamentals of corporate law or financial regulation. The swamp of insider conflicts of interest and semilegal double-dealing continue in the system, despite some modest changes. Maybe Lay's indictment will put the subject back on the table, but don't count on it. Ken Lay faces trial, but most of his co-conspirators, especially from Wall Street, got away and remain at large, doing new deals and counting their blessings.