Ex-Enron exec an apparent suicide

Former vice chairman, a "family man" and a major Bush donor, was accused in civil suit of selling off stock worth $35.2 million.

Published January 25, 2002 10:26PM (EST)

At 2:23 a.m. Friday morning, police from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land approached a 2002 black four-door Mercedes Benz parked between two medians. Inside sat the dead body of 43-year-old John Clifford Baxter, a .38 caliber revolver, and a suicide note.

Baxter, the former vice chair of beleaguered Enron Corp. until his resignation last May, had an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The local justice of the peace has called for an autopsy, though a spokeswoman for the Sugar Land Police Department, Patricia D. Whitty, says, "We don't suspect any foul play." He still carried his Enron ID inside his wallet.

Within Enron, Baxter -- known as "Cliff" -- was said to be a hard-charging, family-oriented executive unafraid to challenge his bosses. He resigned from Enron last summer after butting heads with then- president and chief executive officer Jeff Skilling, who left the company in August for what was reported at the time as personal reasons. In an August 2001 memo from Enron vice president Sherron Watkins to then-CEO Ken Lay, Baxter was described as having "complained mightily to Skilling and all who would listen about the inappropriateness of our transactions with LJM." LJM was one of the shell partnerships set up by then-chief financial officer Andrew Fastow, where the company's enormous debt was hidden.

A former Enron executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that Baxter was "fed up" with dealing with the firm's corrupt executive board. "He was tough as nails," says the former executive. "He was obsessive-compulsive about his deals, about his life. He battled a lot of the corporate mentality that was in place; he wasn't afraid to go head-to-head with the top people in the company." Baxter was principled and had a big ego, the source says. He refused to attend breakfast or late dinner meetings because he wanted to spend the time with his family.

Not everyone had such a rosy view of Baxter, however, as he was one of the many Enron executives accused of selling off his Enron stock and making a bundle in the process. In December, Baxter was one of 29 former and current Enron executives and board members named as defendants in a civil suit filed in federal court. They were accused of making a combined $1.1 billion by selling Enron stock between October 1998 and November 2001. Baxter was accused of selling 577,436 shares of Enron stock, making $35.2 million in the process.

"He may have been selling his stock," the former executive says, "but you know what? Ken Lay was selling his and at the same time telling us we ought to be buying it, saying to us that the company was fine. At least Cliff wasn't pumping the stock."

A high-level source with one of the many congressional committees investigating the Enron scandal says that the committee has added Baxter's suicide to the list of Enron-related matters investigators are looking into.

Like many in the once-powerful energy trading company, which declared bankruptcy in December, Baxter was a big political donor. In May 1999, he donated $1,000 to the presidential campaign of then-Gov. George W. Bush. Shortly thereafter he and his wife donated $10,000 to the Republican National Committee. Like Enron as a whole, most of his donations went to Republicans, though he was more than willing to also grease the wheels of Democratic politicians; he gave $500 to Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, in June 1999.

As senior vice president for corporate development, Baxter was one of the leaders of the company's Dabhol power project in India and was listed as a "key project contact" for the gas project. India's Maharashtra State Electricity Board owed Enron $64 million for the Dabhol project, a matter that Vice President Dick Cheney controversially raised with an Indian official in June after Baxter had resigned.

"We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of our friend and colleague, Cliff Baxter," Enron said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends."

Born in Amityville, N.Y., Baxter graduated from New York University in 1980, served in the U.S. Air Force from graduation until 1985 and received an MBA from Columbia University in 1987. In 1991, he joined Enron and almost immediately began his climb up the corporate ladder. In 1997, Enron promoted Baxter to senior vice president of corporate development at the same time that Andrew Fastow -- the eventual master of the shell partnerships, who was ousted from Enron in October -- was promoted to senior vice president of Enron and head of the newly formed Enron Capital Management.

Baxter became chairman and CEO of Enron North America. In June 2000 he was named chief strategy officer for the company. In October 2000, Baxter was promoted to vice chair of Enron. Less than a year later he had resigned. In a statement at the time, Skilling praised Baxter's "creativity, intelligence, sense of humor and straightforward manner." Skilling said that Baxter would remain a consultant to the company, which the former Enron executive who spoke to Salon says wasn't true. "While we will miss him," Skilling's statement went on, "we are happy that his primary reason for resigning is to spend additional time with his family."

The former Enron executive says that he has trouble imagining why Baxter would kill himself. "The only thing I can think of is that he felt a personal sense of responsibility for not staying at the company and stopping" the corrupt practices. "When he left the company, he left the company."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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