Enron is Whitewater in spades. This isn't just some rinky-dink land investment like the one dredged up by right-wing enemies to haunt the Clinton White House–but rather it has the makings of the greatest presidential scandal since the Teapot Dome.
The Bush Administration has a long and intimate relationship with Enron, whose much-discredited chairman, Kenneth L. Lay, was a primary financial backer of George W. Bush's rise to the presidency.
It was Enron that provided the model for the Administration's trickle-down attempt to revive an economy that's been in steep decline during Bush's tenure. That model gives the fat-cat corporate hotshots everything they want in return for bankrolling political campaigns. Not to worry about the rest of us because, hey, what's good for Enron is good for America. That it hasn't been is now painfully clear.
What did Enron get in return for its contributions? It got its way on deregulation, for one thing. Remember when the Administration refused to assist California and other states during the energy crisis, and consumers paid the steep price?
So greedy was Enron that it locked its own workers into a pension plan based on inflated company stock values and suspect hidden partnerships, while the top leadership led by Lay made out like bandits.
Bush should be called as a witness in the Congressional hearings scheduled to unravel this mess. One thing that should come up in the hearings is then-Gov. Bush's October 1997 telephone call on behalf of Lay to then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to help Enron crack into the tightly regulated Pennsylvania electricity market.
"I called George W. to kind of tell him what was going on," Lay told the New York Times about the 1997 phone call, "and I said that it would be very helpful to Enron, which is obviously a large company in the state of Texas, if he could just call the governor [of Pennsylvania] and tell him [Enron] is a serious company, this is a professional company, a good company."
Since we now know Enron lacked those virtues, it's clear Bush was used to sell a bill of goods to the unsuspecting Pennsylvania folks.
That Lay was instrumental in Bush's rise to the presidency is indisputable. Since 1993, Lay and top Enron executives donated nearly $2 million to Bush. Lay also personally donated $326,000 in soft money to the Republican Party in the three years prior to Bush's presidential bid, and he was one of the Republican "pioneers" who raised $100,000 in smaller contributions for Bush. Lay's wife donated $100,000 for inauguration festivities.
As governor, Bush did what Enron wanted, cutting taxes and deregulating utilities. The deregulation ideology, which George W. long had adopted as gospel, allowed dubious bookkeeping and other acts of chicanery that shocked Wall Street and drove a $60-billion company, seventh on the Fortune 500 list, into bankruptcy.
This emerging scandal makes Whitewater seem puny in comparison; clearly there ought to be at least as aggressive a congressional inquiry into the connection between the Bush Administration and the Enron debacle. Facts must be revealed, beginning with the content of Lay's private meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney to create the Administration's energy policy.
What was Lay's role in the sudden replacement of Curtis Hebert Jr. as Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman? As the New York Times reported, Hebert "had barely settled into his new job this year when he had an unsettling telephone conversation with Kenneth L. Lay, [in which Lay] prodded him to back … a faster pace in opening up access to the electricity transmission grid to companies like Enron." Lay admits making the call but in an unctuous defense of his influence peddling said, "The final decision on [Hebert's job] was going to be the President's, certainly not ours." Soon after, Hebert was replaced by Texan Pat Wood, who was favored by Lay.
Other questions: Was there any conflict of interest in the roles played by key Bush aides? Political advisor Karl Rove owned as much as $250,000 in Enron stock. And economic advisor Larry Lindsay and Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick went straight from Enron's payroll to their federal jobs.
There are other Enron alum in the Administration, including Army Secretary Thomas White Jr., who, as an Enron executive, held stock and options totaling $50 million to $100 million.
We have a right to know whether the Enron alums in the Administration were tipped off in time to bail out with profit the way Lay and the other Enron top execs did, while their workers and stockholders–and eventually US taxpayers–are being left holding the suddenly empty bag.