The president and the evildoers

While Bush talks tough about al-Qaida, his buddies at Enron are getting a pass.

Published January 23, 2002 6:48PM (EST)

"I'm worried about the fact that the evil ones hit us and it caused people to lose their jobs," the president said in a speech last week.

No, he wasn't talking about Enron, but he could have been.

I'm not suggesting that there is any kind of equivalence, moral or otherwise, between the evil ones who murder innocent civilians and the evil ones at Enron. But surely there must be a special divine punishment for the perpetrators of the kind of deliberate deception we now know that Ken Lay and his cronies foisted on those who had given them their trust -- and their futures in the form of their life savings.

"Talk up the stock and talk positively about Enron to your family and friends," Lay exhorted employees during a company-wide electronic town hall meeting on Sept. 26, just four days before Enron closed out the worst quarter in its history. "The company is fundamentally sound." And al-Qaida's fundamentally a glee club.

Like a malevolent shepherd leading his lambs to slaughter, Lay urged his own employees to invest even more of their hard-earned money in Enron stock, predicting its value would increase 800 percent in the next decade, even though he knew the company was in deep trouble -- and that he and other Enron execs had already cashed in stock and options worth over $1 billion.

Lay's snow job was particularly odious because it undoubtedly kept many employees from selling the stock in their retirement accounts while they still could. One month later the company froze the accounts, and employees could only watch helplessly as their savings were sucked down the Enron bankruptcy drain.

In his "Inferno," Dante famously described the various torments awaiting sinners in the underworld. There is a circle reserved for deceivers, who are sentenced to have their souls encased in flames; another for hypocrites, who must wear a golden cloak, weighted inside with lead; and a third set aside for those guilty of financial shenanigans, where the culprits are condemned to crawl on burning sand with heavy money bags around their necks. The Enron cabal's sins are so extensive, Lucifer will have to work out a "three afflictions for the price of one" deal.

The depth of Lay's duplicity was matched only by its shamelessness. "There are no accounting issues, no trading issues, no previously unknown problem issues. The company is probably in the strongest and best shape that it has ever been in," Lay assured Business Week at roughly the same time Sherron Watkins, an Enron vice president for corporate development, was delivering her now famous warning that "we will implode in a wave of accounting scandals."

So great was Lay's hubris, he was even willing to give future investigators their marching orders. "If there's anything material and we're not reporting it," he said in August, "we'd be breaking the law. We don't break the law." Seven different congressional committees seem poised to disagree.

Such mendacity was embedded in the very marrow of the company's bones -- in dramatic contrast to the holier-than-thou corporate face Enron presented to the world.

"Enron stands on the foundation of its Vision and Values," the company's literature proclaimed. The "values" lauded include respect, integrity and communication -- all of which were in desperately short supply in Enron's executive suites but promiscuously displayed on everything from the Enron Web site to the paperweights and T-shirts the company handed out.

"We treat others as we would like to be treated," reads the Web site's section on "Respect." "Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don't belong here." Tell that to the employees who were fired via voice mail. "They told me I had 30 minutes," recalls Clyde Johnson, an Enron troubleshooter who was unceremoniously axed. "Wrap your life up and get out." I wonder how long former CEO Jeff Skilling was given to collect his $60 million before he left the company in August.

This is the same Skilling who once advised: "You must cut jobs ruthlessly by 50 percent or 60 percent. Depopulate. Get rid of people. They gum up the works." I guess he never got the "respect" paperweight.

The now bitterly ironic Enron values statement also makes a big deal about the importance of good corporate communication: "We have an obligation to communicate ... We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people." Like the information that was moved to the shredder. Or like the Enron worker who was moved -- right out the front door -- for revealing that Enron had paid $55 million in bonuses to its top execs just before it filed for bankruptcy. He's just lucky they don't make shredders big enough for people to pass through.

Enron also holds the dubious distinction of being the subject of an Amnesty International human rights report, issued in 1997 after security guards on the company payroll savagely attacked villagers protesting a power plant in India. The report fails to mention whether the thugs were armed with Enron's "vision and values" paperweights during the assault.

"The best thing I can do," asserted the president last week, "in order to build the confidence of the American people, is to prevent the evil ones from hitting us again." A good place to start would be denouncing the despicable actions of those running Enron. They've not only hit thousands of workers, they've battered our faith -- both in the soundness of our economy and in the integrity of our political system.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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