Kenny & Co. living the high life

The little guy takes it on the chin -- and in the wallet.

By Arianna Huffington
Published July 31, 2002 11:30PM (EDT)

While visiting friends in Aspen last week, I had a close encounter of the disgraced CEO kind: I spotted Kenny Lay, garbed in a spiffy jogging suit, getting in a little morning cardio not far from one of the two multimillion dollar vacation homes he keeps there. I guess that secondhand shop his wife opened to sell off some of their booty has been doing brisk business.

Truth be told, such scoundrel sightings are not as unusual as they should be. Despite the well-deserved roasting they're currently getting over the media spit, many of the most notorious boardroom bad guys are continuing to live the high life to which they became accustomed while plundering their companies' coffers.

Even Adelphia's John Rigas, who was forced to do the newly-trendy EPW (executive perp walk) following his arrest, had enough spare change on hand to cover his $10 million bail -- and was back home in plenty of time for a nice family dinner with his indicted sons. You know what they say: The family that eats together, cheats together.

The victims of corporate pillage, meanwhile, are not having it so easy. Faced with scrambled nest eggs, sinking pension plans, shaky health coverage and a gloomy job market, record numbers of average Americans are taking it on the chin -- and in the wallet.

A key indicator of just how bad things have gotten for the little guy is the record number of Americans -- 1.5 million -- who filed for personal bankruptcy in the year ending March 31. That's one out of every 69 U.S. households.

And since bankruptcies invariably lag behind current economic conditions -- they are the fiscal equivalent of those guys in the circus who follow after the elephants with a shovel, trying to deal with the mess the parade has left behind -- the odds are high that 2002 will be an even better year for bankruptcy attorneys. The first quarter of this year has already seen a record 369,237 filings.

And it's important to note that only 3 percent of these filings are by people who abuse the system by living extravagant lifestyles and then leaving their creditors holding the bag. The majority are actually low- to middle-class people who can't pay their bills because they've lost their jobs or been hit with crippling medical bills or been enticed into running up unmanageable credit card balances by easy-credit come-ons and here-today-gone-tomorrow "teaser" interest rates.

Nevertheless, Congress is on the verge of passing legislation that will make it harder for people to start afresh after they declare bankruptcy while, not coincidentally, adding billions of dollars to the bottom line of banks and credit card companies.

And why are our elected representatives so eager to add to the burden of consumers struggling to rebuild their lives amidst tough economic times? Perhaps it has something to do with the $27.5 million the finance and credit industries have contributed to political campaigns since 1990 -- including $3,518,966 so far in the 2002 election cycle.

In addition, credit card giants MBNA, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley were among the top 10 donors to President Bush's 2000 campaign. Is it any surprise that the president has indicated he will sign the bankruptcy bill as soon as it hits his desk? It's the first law of politico-dynamics: You sign a president's checks, he'll sign your bill. Anyone can buy public policy, but it's not cheap. If you have to ask, you probably can't afford it.

For an especially sleazy example of how this Beltway quid pro quo works, look no further than the case of Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., the chief Democratic sponsor of the bankruptcy bill. It seems that back in 1998, Moran was about to be buried under an avalanche of hefty credit card balances he couldn't pay off. Things looked grim for the congressman -- until he was bailed out by a sweetheart loan orchestrated by the generous folks at MBNA.

In a move as shameless as it is despicable, Moran then turned around and helped craft a bill that will make it harder for average consumers who find themselves in the same jam he was in. Will MBNA ride to their rescue as well -- or will it do everything in its newly fortified power to exact its pound of flesh?

It is particularly ironic that Congress was wrapping up its billion-dollar gift to the banking industry during the same week executives of Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase were lambasted on Capitol Hill for helping Enron defraud shareholders to the tune of $8 billion. Only in Washington could a pair of companies be publicly raked over the coals -- exposed as bald-faced liars and criminal accessories -- on a Tuesday, and then be blown an all-is-forgiven makeup smooch on Thursday.

So once again big donors get a kiss on the lips and little guys get a kick in the rear, or someplace even more painful. And those trying to dig themselves out of a mountain of debt are not likely to be given a boost by a contracting job market with 8.4 million people out of work and more people seeking unemployment benefits than at any time in nearly 20 years.

No wonder there is a growing anger among the dispossessed. "Never before have I seen the fury and hatred that I'm now seeing on a daily basis," says David Bowman, chairman of TTG Consultants/Lincolnshire, an employment consultancy firm that tries to find work for people who have been downsized. "You've got thousands and thousands of hardworking people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves broke, out of a job, and with nearly worthless retirement plans."

I realize that life isn't fair. But wouldn't it be nice if it were a little more just? If Kenny Lay, instead of jogging around the streets of Aspen in sweats, were jogging around a jail yard track in stripes?

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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