By Robert Scheer
No, I’m not thrilled over Jeffrey Skilling getting 24 years in prison for his role in the Enron scandal. While he and fellow Enron honcho Kenneth Lay were clearly guilty as charged, the handling of this case by the Bush Justice Department is a functional coverup of the Bush family’s role in enabling these crimes.
The thousands of Enron employees who lost their jobs, as well as $2 billion in pension money and $60 billion in share value, deserve better. By focusing on narrowly drawn criminal charges and the public’s wrath against Skilling and his late partner in crime—“Kenny Boy” Lay, as President Bush referred to his onetime chief campaign benefactor—the culpability of the president’s family in this sordid saga is being whitewashed.
How convenient to close the book without considering the ties between the Enron perps and those in two Bush presidencies whose actions enabled these hustlers. The Enron crooks would never have been more than petty thieves were it not for the political support they received from their fellow Texas oil buddies. They knew that, and they paid for it: Over the years, Lay and Enron gave the Bush family politicians $3 million in contributions, as well as lending the campaigning George W. a jet on at least eight occasions.
They did so because, without the deregulation of the energy industry pushed by the first President Bush, Enron would have remained a minor company without the capacity to swindle. At the time, Lay wrote a column supporting the elder Bush’s reelection by praising him as “the energy president” because “just six months after George Bush became president, he directed ... the most ambitious and sweeping energy plan ever proposed.”
Specifically, Enron benefited mightily from a key ruling by Wendy Gramm, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under George H.W. Bush, permitting Enron to trade in highly profitable energy derivatives. A mere five weeks after rendering that ruling, Gramm, the wife of then-Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), abruptly resigned to join the Enron board of directors, where she served on the company’s now-infamous see-no-evil audit committee. Secretary of State James Baker and Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher also rushed to work for Enron after their White House tenures.
Dubya first got involved with Enron’s Lay when they both worked on his daddy’s campaign, and the relationship flowered during his years as the governor of Texas. There is, in fact, a long paper trail of “Dear Ken” and “Dear George” exchanges that have come to light, thanks to Freedom of Information Act requests. The correspondence exposes the active support given by Bush to Enron’s expansion into markets ranging from Uzbekistan to Pennsylvania. As Lay wrote to Bush in a letter dated Oct. 7, 1997: “I very much appreciated your call to Gov. Tom Ridge a few days ago. I am certain that will have a positive impact on the way he and others view our proposal.”
In payback for Bush’s support, Lay became a Bush “pioneer” fundraiser, dumping in more than $2 million in contributions from himself and Enron executive funds. Lay’s influence with Bush extended well into the first year of the Bush administration, when Bush stonewalled California while it was being extorted through a manufactured “power crisis” by Enron and other energy companies to buy energy at grossly inflated prices.
The Enron boss also became a principal architect of the new Bush energy policy in the months before his downfall, completely undermining the spirit of democracy. In fact, the public has still been denied access to the six secret conversations Lay had with Vice President Dick Cheney when the vice president was quarterbacking the Bush administration’s response to the California energy crisis, which saw the prosperous state preposterously hit by rolling blackouts. Lay provided Cheney with a key memo opposing price caps that would have mightily aided California consumers.
Lay also played a major role in the dismissal of Curtis Hebert Jr. as Federal Energy Commission chairman. Hebert was too independent for Enron’s taste, while his replacement was far more amenable to the company’s agenda.
Without the specific energy policies pursued through two Bush presidencies, Skilling and Lay would have remained two-bit Texas hustlers going nowhere fast. But thanks to their presidential sponsors, who in turn received lavish campaign contributions, the biggest corporate swindle in U.S. history was allowed to unfold.
Why were the dots between the Enron swindlers and their government sponsors never connected by a Bush Justice Department that seemed more interested in containing the damage than exploring the true ramifications of this case? Getting to the bottom of this story is one compelling reason to hope that the Democrats gain control in this election of at least one branch of Congress, thus permitting a serious investigation of the political machinations behind the Enron swindle.
Creators Syndicate Inc.
E-mail Robert Scheer at rscheer(at symbol)truthdig.com.