Enron at the White House

by Walt Brasch

The farther the Bush administration tries to distance itself from Enron, the Houston-based energy trader now in bankruptcy, the more apparent the ties become.

Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill and Secretary of Commerce Don Evans admitted they talked with Enron executives who had asked the federal government to keep the company from filing the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. But, both claim they didn’t interfere to help Enron. At the same time, neither sensed that investigations were called for.

Vice-President Dick Cheney admits he or his representatives met with Enron officials six times during the first half-year of the Bush presidency to help establish the administration’s energy policy. Cheney was CEO of the Halliburton Co., the world’s largest oil-drilling company which has five of its six divisions in Houston. But, of course, the vice-president-in-hiding says he did nothing wrong.

Administration officials have claimed that with its war on terrorism they have had more important responsibilities than to worry about Enron and its fall-out. The Administration’s spin is a ludicrous display of arrogant insensitivity to the multi- faceted requirements of the Presidency. Certainly, the war against Afghanistan doesn’t come even close to the overwhelming responsibilities that consumed other war-time presidents who didn’t ignore the domestic agenda.

O’Neill, in fact, icily told the media, “Companies come and go . . . That’s part of capitalism.” He claimed it’s not the federal government’s responsibility to protect the people. The failure to protect the people during the fall of Enron last year is probably based upon the close ties between Enron and the Bush administration that go deep and wide, and begin more than a decade earlier.

James Baker, secretary of state under President George H. W. Bush, and Robert Mosbacher, the President’s secretary of commerce, were hired by Enron after Bush left office in 1993. Mosbacher, who lived most of his life in Houston, earned his first millions in gas and oil exploration.

Harvey Pitt, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), was once an attorney with Arthur Andersen, the not-so- independent audit company that admitted it shredded or deleted thousands of Enron documents. Lawrence Lindsey, the President’s economic advisor, was an Enron consultant. Former Sen. Spencer Abraham, now the President’s secretary of energy, had received Enron campaign contributions. Karl Rove, a Bush senior advisor, sold more than $100,000 in Enron stock in late Spring. Robert Zoellich, U.S. trade representative, was once on Enron’s advisory council. Ed Gillespie, one of Bush’s campaign advisors, is now an Enron lobbyist. Marc Racicot, Bush’s choice to chair the Republican National Committee, is an attorney for a firm that lobbies on behalf of Enron. Racicot was also Bush’s chief spokesman during the Florida recount.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, in a failed attempt at re- election in 2000 as U.S. senator from Missouri, received $57,499 in Enron donations. The recent disclosure forced Ashcroft and his chief of staff to step down from participating in investigations of what was once the nation’s seventh largest company. The Justice Department investigation is now under the direction of Larry Thompson, a Bush-appointed deputy attorney general, and former partner in a law firm that represents Enron. The entire office of the U.S. Attorney in Houston has had to remove themselves from becoming involved in any investigation since most of its prosecutors have ties to Enron.

Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, a Houston native whose term began during the last two years of the Bush governorship, has also had to recuse himself from investigations since he accepted $158,000 in Enron money since 1997.

President Bush says he “never discussed with Mr. Lay the financial problems of the company,” and that he last saw Lay at a charity fund raiser in May in Houston. Lay is Kenneth Lay, Enron CEO who earned more than $42 million in salary and benefits in 1999, and reaped about $205 million in stock-option profits during the past four years. He and several dozen executives made millions while Enron was collapsing; more than 11,000 workers lost most of their life savings and retirement plans.

Less than three weeks after the Texas charity fund-raiser, “Lay joined Bush in Washington DC for a Republican [political] fund-raiser that topped all previous records by bringing in a staggering $21.3 million,” the largest one-night fund-raiser in political history, according to a July 2000 special report published by the non-profit Transnational Resource and Action Center.

It makes little difference when Bush last talked with Lay.

Enron contributed about $550,000 to Bush’s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. The contributions make Enron Bush’s largest contributor, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Enron also contributed almost $2 million in soft money, $1.5 million to Republican candidates, but also spread about one-fourth of it to Democrats.

Enron and other major polluters have benefited from what CorpWatch calls “sweeping protections [signed by Gov. Bush] to polluters who perform internal [but secret] environmental or safety audits.” In 1999, Gov. Bush signed an extension of the state’s Clean Air Responsibility Act of 1971 which allowed Enron and other polluters to be “grandfathered” into not having to meet stronger environmental protection laws. CorpWatch notes that had Bush not signed the extension of the “grandfather” clause, Enron’s Houston plant would have been allowed to release only 250 tons of nitrogen oxide into the air instead of the 3,500 tons it annually released. Houston, mostly because of lax pollution laws, is the nation’s most polluted city.

With Gov. Bush’s complicity, Enron had also led the fight for Texas to deregulate electricity. It was Texas companies which also raked in excessive profits by selling energy at outrageous prices to California during that state’s recent crisis. Deregulation was also one of the reasons why the value of Enron stock was able to rise so quickly–then plummet when the company couldn’t sustain itself from its own shell-games lies.

The Bush administration still has not yet released e-mail and contacts with Enron.

In a prophetic statement more than a year before Bush’s election as president, Andrew Whent of the consumer watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice, stated “A Bush election fueled by Enron dollars could fill the White House with dangerous levels of Enron gas, and consumers will be burned.”

Enron donations allowed it to infiltrate every part of the government which has a responsibility to oversee and regulate energy companies and to protect the people from malfeasance. Those donations, which essentially put the government on Enron’s retainer, assured at best a blindness, at worst a criminal cover- up.

“We’re all tainted by the Enron contributions,” says Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the nation’s leaders for campaign finance reform and integrity in government. It’s time to begin to enact campaign finance reform to guarantee that the nation’s legislators and regulators will be responsible to the people rather than to special interests.

Assisting was Rosemary R. Brasch. Walt Brasch, a university professor of journalism, is a former award-winning newspaper reporter and editor. His latest book is The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Administration.

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