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Bush Did Try to Save Enron

By Sam Parry
May 29, 2002

Since Enron Corp. plunged into bankruptcy six months ago, George Bush's defenders have said the administration's refusal to bail out the sinking energy trader is proof of Bush's integrity, given that Enron's Chairman Kenneth Lay was one of Bush's top financial backers.

The story line has been that all of Ken Lay’s millions couldn’t buy George W. Bush. For that reason, Enron has been called a financial scandal, not a political scandal.

Growing evidence, however, shows that this Bush-can’t-be-bought story line isn’t true.

It is now clear that prior to Nov. 8, when the Securities and Exchange Commission delivered subpoenas to Enron, the Bush administration did what it could to help Enron replenish its coffers with billions of dollars. Enron desperately needed that money to prevent the exposure of mounting losses hidden in off-the-books partnerships, a bookkeeping black hole that was sucking Enron toward bankruptcy.

As Enron’s crisis worsened through the first nine months of the Bush presidency, Ken Lay got Bush’s help in three principal ways:

--Bush personally joined the fight against imposing caps on the soaring price of electricity in California at a time when Enron was artificially driving up the price of electricity by manipulating supply. Bush’s rear-guard action against price caps bought Enron and other energy traders extra time to gouge hundreds of millions of dollars from California’s consumers.

--Bush granted Lay broad influence over the administration’s energy policies, including the choice of key regulators to oversee Enron’s businesses. The chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was suddenly replaced in 2001 after he began to delve into Enron’s complex derivative-financing schemes.

--Bush had his National Security Council staff organize an administration-wide campaign to pressure the Indian government to accommodate Enron, which wanted to sell its generating plant in Dabhol, India, for $2.3 billion. Bush administration pressure on India over the Dabhol plant continued even after Sept. 11, when India’s support was needed for the war on terrorism. The administration’s threats against India on Enron’s behalf didn’t stop until Nov. 8.

On Nov. 8, Enron disclosed the formal SEC investigation and admitted overstating earnings by $586 million with losses hidden in off-the-books partnerships run by Enron’s Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow. Over the next four weeks, Enron stumbled toward its bankruptcy filing on Dec. 2.

Kenny Who?

When the corporate wreckage was complete, the toll was devastating. Investors lost tens of billions of dollars; retirees were left nearly penniless; and 5,000 Enron employees were laid off. Beyond that, Enron’s accounting tricks discredited its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen LLP, and sent shock waves through U.S. securities markets.

As the accounting scandal provoked disgust across the country and across party lines, the White House sought to minimize its relationship with Enron. In spite of a personal acquaintance best symbolized by Bush’s nickname for "Kenny Boy," Bush began to act as if he barely knew Lay. On Jan. 11, Bush told reporters that Lay "was a supporter of Ann Richards in my run in 1994," implying that he had gotten to know Lay as Gov. Richards’ holdover appointee to a Texas business council.

Striking a note in personal disapproval, Bush said his sympathies rested with laid-off Enron employees and small Enron investors who saw their life savings wiped out. Bush said his own mother-in-law lost $8,000 when Enron collapsed.

The administration’s basic line of defense was that it did nothing to bail out Enron. Exhibit One in this argument was the fact that the administration took no substantial action to help Enron after Lay sounded out senior Bush officials in late October by placing calls to Commerce Secretary Donald Evans and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill.

By late October, however, it could also be argued that Enron’s troubles were too advanced – and the public spotlight too intense – for the administration to launch a rescue mission. News of Enron’s financial difficulties already was spreading through the business press and the SEC had started to investigate.

In fact, the record shows that, in spite of the risk, the Treasury Department did respond to Lay’s call for help. The New York Times reported that Secretary O’Neill instructed Under Secretary for Domestic Finance Peter Fisher to "look into the condition of Enron." Fisher responded by following up with Enron President Greg Whalley, speaking with him "six to eight times" over a few day period in late October and early November. After the conversations, perhaps recognizing the political peril, Treasury decided against further support. [NYT, 1/13/02]

Treasury’s efforts on Enron’s behalf in late October were not unusual for the Bush administration. Far from doing nothing to help Enron, news accounts and newly released documentary evidence show that that prior to Enron’s death spiral, the young Bush administration did what it could to support Enron’s business interests.

Enron’s Troubles

The Houston-based energy trader’s financial mess can be traced back at least to 2000 when the long-running stock market boom ended.

During the boom, Enron had soared through the list of Fortune 500 companies to a perch at No. 7. A leader of the so-called New Economy, Enron expanded beyond its core business interests in natural gas pipelines, branching out into complex commodity trading, which included electricity, broadband capacity and other ethereal items, such as weather futures. It had investments in smaller companies that operated in areas where Enron traded.

The bursting of the dot-com bubble in March 2000 and the collapse of the telecommunications sector put pressure on Enron as it did many other companies. Even though Enron’s own stock held strong, hitting an all-time high of $90 on Aug. 17, 2000, the tumbling market, combined with some risky overseas energy projects, left Enron with a host of poor-performing assets that were a drag on the company’s growth.

To protect its image as a darling of Wall Street – and to prop up its stock value – Enron began shifting more of its losing operations into off-the-books partnerships given names like Raptor and Chewco. Hedges were set up, supposedly to limit Enron’s potential losses from equity investments, but some were themselves backed by Enron stock, creating the possibility of a spiraling decline if investors lost faith in Enron.

Their Man Bush

Still, Enron saw a silver lining in the darkening economic clouds of 2000. If George W. Bush could secure the presidency, Enron would have a reliable ally for its deregulatory plans at the top of the U.S. government. With Bush would come other allies who could staff key positions in the federal bureaucracy.

Lay had reasons for optimism about his ties to Bush. Having backed Bush’s father and the son’s gubernatorial run in 1994, Lay was an insider’s insider. For the 2000 campaign, he was a Pioneer for Bush, raising $100,000. Enron also gave the Republicans $250,000 for the convention in Philadelphia and contributed $1.1 million in soft money to the Republican Party, more than twice what it contributed to Democrats. []

The contributions dwarfed what was at stake for Enron. In its energy trading in California alone, Enron stood to earn tens of billions of dollars.

Around the start of the 2000 general election campaign, the first signs of suspicions also arose that Enron was trying to gain windfall profits by manipulating the California energy market. In August 2000, an employee with Southern California Edison sent the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) a memo, entitled "California Electricity Markets: Issues for Examination." The memo expressed concerns that Enron and other electricity providers to California’s deregulated energy market were gaming the system by cutting off supply and creating phony congestion in the electricity grid to run up energy prices. [Energy Daily, May 16, 2002]

By December 2000, even while FERC was piecing together a strategy for dealing with the California crisis, recently released documents now show that Enron lawyers were exchanging letters about conducting just those kinds of schemes. With strategies dubbed "Fat Boy," "Death Star," and "Get Shorty," Enron was siphoning electricity away from areas that needed it most while getting paid for phantom transfers of energy supposedly to relieve transmission-line congestion. [See Washington Post, May 7, 2002]

That same month, Bush nailed down his presidential victory, getting five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court to halt vote counting in Florida. Lay and his wife lent a hand there, too, donating $10,000 to Bush’s Florida recount fund that helped pay the Republican lawyers and other operatives who ensured that a full recount of Florida’s ballots never occurred.

With Bush’s victory secured, another $300,000 poured in from Enron circles for the Bush-Cheney Inaugural Fund. The company, then-Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Skilling and Lay each kicked in $100,000.

An Energy Plan

A grateful Bush gave Lay a major voice in shaping energy policy and picking personnel. Starting in late February 2001, Lay and other Enron officials took part in at least a half dozen secret meetings to develop the Bush's energy plan.

After one of the Enron meetings, Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force changed a draft energy proposal to include a provision to boost oil and natural gas production in India. The amendment was so narrow that it apparently was targeted only to help Enron's troubled Dabhol power plant in India. [Washington Post, Jan. 26, 2002]

Other parts of the Bush energy plan tracked closely to recommendations from Enron officials. Seventeen of the energy plan’s proposals were sought by and benefited Enron, according to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., ranking minority member on the House Government Reform Committee. One proposal called for repeal of the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, which limits the activities of utilities and hindered Enron’s potential for acquisitions.

Besides listening to Lay's advice, Bush put the corporation's allies inside the federal government. Two top administration officials, Lawrence Lindsey, the White House’s chief economic adviser, and Robert Zoellick, the U.S. Trade Representative, both worked for Enron, Lindsey as a consultant and Zoellick as a paid member of Enron's advisory board. []

Bush also named Thomas E. White Jr., an 11-year veteran of Enron's corporate suites, to be secretary of the Army. White had run a key subsidiary, Enron Energy Services, which is now the focus of allegations about accounting irregularities.

At least 14 administration officials owned stock in Enron, with Undersecretary of State Charlotte Beers and chief political adviser Karl Rove each reporting up to $250,000 worth of Enron stock when they joined the administration.

FERC Concerns

Lay exerted his influence, too, over government regulators already in place. Curtis Hebert Jr., a conservative Republican and a close political ally of Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, had been appointed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission during the Clinton administration. Like Bush and Lay, Hebert was a promoter of "free markets." Bush elevated Hebert to FERC chairman in January 2001.

While a strong believer in deregulation, Hebert broke ranks with Lay on two key points. Hebert was an advocate of state rights, an obstacle to Enron's desire for FERC to mandate consolidation of state utilities into four giant regional transmission organizations, or RTOs. By quickly pushing the states into RTOs, Enron and other big energy traders would have much larger markets for their energy sales.

Hebert told the New York Times that he got a call from Lay with a proposed deal. Lay wanted Hebert to support a faster transition to a national retailing structure for electricity. If he did, Enron would back him, so he could keep his job.

The FERC chairman said he was "offended" by the veiled threat. He understood that Lay's political influence could put his job in jeopardy, since Bush held the power to appoint FERC chairmen and Lay had demonstrated sway over selection of administration appointees. Besides supplying Bush aides with a list of preferred candidates, Lay had personally interviewed one possible FERC nominee.

Lay offered a different account of the phone call. He said Hebert was the one "requesting" Enron's support at the White House, though Lay acknowledged that the pair "very possibly" discussed issues involving FERC's authority over the nation's electricity grids.

Lay also had reason to be suspicious of Hebert’s interest in the complex derivative financing instruments that he saw among the leading energy traders, including Enron. After he became chairman, Hebert started an investigation into how these deals worked. "One of our problems is that we do not have the expertise to truly unravel the complex arbitrage activities of a company like Enron," Hebert said. "We're trying to do it now, and we may have some results soon." [NYT, May 25, 2001]

Page Two: California Blackouts