Ken Lay and George Bush Dance Their Last Tango

March 21, 2002

A friend who has lived in Houston for 35 years took me on a tour of the Bayou City recently. Our first stop was Enron’s gleaming twin towers.
In front of the building is the famous upended ‘E’ glowing in the East Texas sunset like a cattle rustler’s branding iron. ‘We call it the ‘Crooked E,” my friend said with a rueful laugh.

Attorney General John Ashcroft was busy with the war on terrorism, so he looked the other way as, behind the tinted glass at Enron headquarters, paper shredders ran at full throttle for two months. They were destroying evidence of Enron’s grand larceny.

The crimes are legion: massive corporate fraud, insider trading, price fixing, influence peddling, tax evasion, obstruction of justice. Already the signs of a coordinated cover-up are becoming clear. The first priority is to protect George W. Bush, whose ‘good ole boy’ ties to Enron’s former CEO Ken Lay are as fresh and malodorous as a steaming cow pie.

Like Ashcroft, Bush is so preoccupied as ‘commander-in-chief’ that he has no time to answer the overriding question in this debacle: ‘What did you know and when did you know it?’

Yet the real story of Enron is the corporation’s incestuous relations with the Bush family and the ultra-right. Track the rise of Enron and you are tracking the career of George W. Bush from a callow college frat rat to a cunning corporate-government insider, who always knew what was best for the oil and gas billionaires.

Like his one-term dad, George W., Richard Cheney, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and hundreds of other Republican and Democratic officials fed at Enron’s trough. Enron contributions added up to at least $6.6 million in the years of Bush’s rise to power. So many were on Ken Lay’s dole, it is hard to find anyone with hands clean enough to investigate the company’s collapse.

Enron’s ties to the ultra-right are so well-known in Texas that a website was set up with the address, ‘EnronOwnsThe GOP.’ It reports that Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, accepted $227,075 from Enron while Attorney General John Cornyn -who is ‘investigating’ Enron – received $193,000 from the defunct energy trading giant.

By far the biggest recipient of Enron largesse was George W. Bush, who received an estimated $2 million in Enron cash, starting with his race for Texas governor in 1994.

Bush, who calls Lay ‘Kenny Boy,’ flew to campaign stops during the 2000 presidential election aboard Enron corporate jets. Enron, of course, was not the only oil and gas company that rallied for Bush. The nation’s oil and gas monopolies poured $41 million into his election campaign.

When Bush lost the popular vote nationwide and in Florida, Enron-connected lawyer James A. Baker, secretary of state in the elder Bush’s cabinet, was rushed to Florida to orchestrate the termination of the vote count.

DeLay, another lawmaker on the Enron dole, recruited a fascist-like goon squad that rushed down to Florida to bully election officials to halt the count.

The U.S. Supreme Court installed Bush in the White House. It was a very American coup brought to us by Enron and other banks and corporations.
Craig McDonald, executive director of Austin-based Texans for Public Justice, cited letters Ken Lay wrote to Bush during his tenure as governor. The Texas Archives released them pursuant to a Freedom of Information lawsuit.

‘They show a very close personal relationship between Lay and Bush,’ McDonald said.

‘The visibility of the corruption is astounding, the degree to which the rich and the powerful were controlling policy. Ken Lay knew he had to be a political broker if he was going to broker electricity. He needed deregulation of the energy market to gain control of it.’

Richard Cheney’s notorious Energy Policy Task Force produced a report that embraced Enron’s quest for total gas and electric deregulation. Lay met with Cheney and other Task Force members six times to dictate the language of the report.

‘Cheney may have been talking, but the words were Lay’s,’ McDonald said. Bush and Cheney tried to keep the proceedings of the task force hidden under a blanket of ‘executive privilege.’ But a federal court has ordered them to surrender the records of this secretive outfit.
The sewer of corruption promises to pour out more filth for the rest of Bush’s term in office. McDonald scoffed at the Bush administration’s clumsy damage control efforts, reducing the scandal to a ‘corporate scandal’ while covering up its political essence.

‘They want people to see Enron as one rogue corporation. In fact, people are beginning to understand that Enron is one of many,’ McDonald said. ‘The problem is the system. This is good government if you are Enron. But the policies promoted by the moneyed class benefit them, not us.’

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) cites a memo from the task force obtained by //The San Francisco Chronicle//, which she calls the ‘smoking gun’ of Enron’s role, with help from the Bush administration, in the California energy crisis of 2001.

‘As we connect the dots,’ she wrote, ‘it is becoming increasingly clear that California’s sky high electricity prices were brought about by Enron’s methodical plan to free itself from all government oversight to hike up energy prices in secret.’

Enron played the leading role in pushing through deregulation of California’s electricity market with the help of Dynegy, Duke Power, and other natural gas suppliers.

‘Deregulation allowed Enron to buy and sell electricity behind closed doors in an effort to trade up the price of energy through futures contracts before it reached the consumer,’ Boxer said.
Their control became so extensive, they could manipulate supplies minute by minute, she wrote. Sure enough, spot shortages began to cause rolling ‘brownouts,’ while rates paid by consumers skyrocketed in the space of weeks.

Gov. Gray Davis pleaded with the Bush administration to impose price caps. But Bush, at Ken Lays’ request, stiff armed these pleas for months as the people of California suffered.

Then the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, headed by Pat Wood, Enron’s hand-picked nominee, approved caps that locked in high utility rates in California. Davis has accused Enron and other energy providers of overcharging consumers at least $8.9 billion.

Part of the scam was to shift blame for the crisis from Enron and the Bush administration to Davis and other Democratic officials. The hope was that outraged voters would oust them from office and elect a Republican governor and legislature in 2002.

But Boxer’s answer was to demand the confiscation of Enron’s loot, hidden in offshore dummy corporations in the Cayman Islands, and use it to reimburse California ratepayers.

A California Senate committee called for the arrest of Lay and other Enron executives and their return to California to stand trial for contempt in refusing to honor a state legislature subpoena.

Carl Wood, a member of the California Power Commission, says that the Enron debacle has brought to a standstill, at least for now, the drive for deregulation of electric utilities. There is, he said, a renewed interest in public ownership of energy as an answer to fleecing the public by pirates like Enron.

Debra Johnson, who served as a senior administrative assistant in Enron’s Human Resources Division in Houston explained to me that the sorrow among Enron workers over Lay’s betrayal is now turning to anger.
‘We had high respect for Kenneth Lay,’ she said. ‘He would walk down the halls saying ‘good morning’ to everybody, just like a regular person.’ Then after seven years of devoted service she was fired on one day’s notice.

‘The executives paid themselves, but they left us with nothing,’ she said. ‘I have two young grandchildren I am raising. I never thought I would be forced to wait in a welfare line for food stamps, but I am.’
Johnson is a member of the Enron Employees Committee that has filed a lawsuit with the bankruptcy court in New York demanding that the 4,000 furloughed employees receive severance pay.

She debunked the sob story from Lay’s wife and children that they are broke pointing out that Lay owns a dozen homes scattered across the U.S. each of them worth millions. He is now hiding out in his condo at the lavish Huntington in wealthy west Houston.

‘I don’t care how many mansions he has as long as he gives the workers the severance pay they deserve,’ Johnson said. ‘I think Kenneth Lay owes us an apology.’

Harris County AFL-CIO President Richard Shaw said Enron workers gave their all for the company. ‘They believed the company line that Enron was going to take care of them,’ said Shaw.

‘Many viewed Ken Lay almost like a father. But when the company unraveled Lay and the rest of them took care of their own interests and left the workers to fend for themselves.’

The Texas and national AFL-CIO, he said, came to their assistance, shouldering the cost of the lawsuit and helping the dazed workers get jobless benefits and other forms of public assistance. ‘During meetings people would ask us, ‘Why are you here’ They didn’t even know what the initials of the AFL-CIO stand for. We told them: ‘We are here because an injury to one is an injury to all.”

Corporations like Enron will never subordinate their profit interests to the rights and needs of their workers, Shaw said.

‘That’s what unions are for. Workers must learn to join together and defend each other.’


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