Published on Friday, January 18, 2002 in the Washington Post
Enron's Influence Reached Deep Into Administration
by Dana Milbank and Glenn Kessler
As presidential candidate George W. Bush's top economic adviser in 2000, Lawrence B. Lindsey was also a paid consultant to Enron Corp. At one point, those two roles merged.
For $50,000 a year, Lindsey attended meetings in 1999 and 2000 of the energy company's economic "advisory board." In those sessions, Enron Chairman Kenneth L. Lay convinced Lindsey of the wisdom behind one of Enron's businesses, a consulting operation that advised companies on energy efficiency.
"It stuck with me," Lindsey said in an interview yesterday.
In fact, Lindsey incorporated Lay's ideas into the Bush campaign's energy policy. During the campaign, Lindsey described Lay's contribution as key.
The cozy relationship -- in which a Bush campaign adviser, being paid by Enron, placed an Enron idea on the candidate's agenda -- served as one more reminder of the political influence and reach of the once-giant energy company. Its ties extend deep into President Bush's staff, appointments, Cabinet members, friends, family -- and his own past.
According to financial records, 35 administration officials have held Enron stock. A few, such as top Bush political adviser Karl Rove, had six-figure holdings. Several others -- Lindsey, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, Commerce Department general counsel Theodore W. Kassinger, Maritime Administrator William G. Schubert -- served as paid Enron consultants.
Bush's secretary of the Army, Thomas E. White, was vice chairman of the Enron business that Lay had described to Lindsey during the campaign. White had held between $25 million and $50 million in Enron stock in addition to options and other forms of remuneration. Newly appointed Republican National Committee Chairman Marc F. Racicot was an Enron lobbyist. Bush campaign adviser Ed Gillespie, sent in when Bush took office to get the Commerce Department up and running, was an Enron lobbyist.
Still others, such as Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, received campaign contributions from Enron, while many more -- including Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey L. Pitt, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Patrick H. Wood III and Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson -- have indirect ties to Enron or auditor Arthur Andersen. And Enron consulted on policy with top administration officials such as Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill and Vice President Cheney.
There has been no indication that the administration's ties to Enron are illegal, and the giant company had similar connections to several Democrats and Republicans in Congress. But the sheer volume of Enron connections to the executive branch offers a study in the long reach of a powerful campaign contributor and aggressive corporation. Though the administration says it made no effort to keep Enron afloat, the extensive ties between the two may present Bush with a political difficulty if Democrats can create a perception of guilt by association.
Enron began in 1985 as a traditional gas pipeline company, but transformed itself into an innovative trader of gas, electricity and other commodities. Its stock became a Wall Street favorite as it tried to enter markets for fiber-optics, movie rentals, paper, even advertising. Many of its businesses were regulated or otherwise affected by federal decisions.
Enron and its executives poured millions of dollars into the political process -- $1.7 million in the 2000 election alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Over the years, a series of actions by Congress and the FERC, which broke down the old monopoly of utility companies over power plants and transmission lines, benefited Enron. The company successfully lobbied for a regulatory exemption for futures trading in energy "derivatives," complex financial instruments that became its most lucrative business and contributed to its downfall. The Bush administration sometimes rebuffed Enron, however, such as when it refused to embrace an Enron-backed position on combating global warming.
Bush last week played down his ties to Lay. He said he "first got to know Ken" in 1994, when "he was a supporter of Ann Richards," the Democratic Texas governor whom Bush ousted. In fact, Bush knew Lay from their work on the 1992 Republican National Convention and the Bush presidential library. The current president received $47,500 from Lay and his wife in 1994 -- many times what Richards received. Lay has said he supported Bush, not Richards, in 1994.
Over the years, Lay and Enron interests have contributed more than a half million dollars to Bush campaign funds, according to the Center for Public Integrity, making him Bush's greatest patron. The Bush presidential campaign reimbursed Enron for use of its corporate jets. Lay, who got the nickname "Kenny Boy" from Bush, served on Bush's presidential transition advisory team for the Energy Department. Enron employee Cynthia Sandherr served on the transition team for the Commerce Department.
In the White House, four senior officials were listed as Enron shareholders. Three of them -- Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, congressional liaison Nicholas E. Calio and former communications adviser Margaret Tutwiler -- likely sold their interests or were not required to under ethics rules; full details will not be made public until May.
The fourth, Rove, whose Enron holdings were valued between $100,000 and $250,000, sold his shares last year after the value had fallen to $68,000; the Enron shares, which the White House said Rove purchased on his own, were part of a portfolio worth more than $2.3 million.
White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales acknowledged last June that Rove took part in meetings that helped shape the administration's energy policy while he still owned stock in Enron and other energy companies. Gonzales, however, said the meetings were general in nature and not specific enough to be barred by conflict-of-interest regulations.
Also tied to Enron is Lindsey. His consulting firm, Economic Strategies Inc., counted an Enron unit among its many clients. Counting speaking fees and his multi-client business, Lindsey earned more than $1.1 million in 2000.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said that Lindsey, before Enron's Dec. 2 bankruptcy filing, led a White House "review" that monitored the impact of Enron's woes on energy markets. Lindsey said it was merely part of an ongoing monitoring of the energy markets by one or two aides. Democrats in Congress yesterday said Lindsey's actions may have violated federal conflict-of-interest regulations. Lindsey said his work was not "Enron-specific."
Cheney, himself a former Texas energy executive, was on a first-name basis with Lay, who met with the vice president to discuss development of the administration's national energy policy. In all, the vice president's office disclosed, the energy task force met six times with Enron representatives. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), a critic of the task force, said "it seems clear that there is no company in the country that stood to gain as much from the White House plan as Enron."
A number of senior Bush aides have had routine or incidental contact with Enron. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. was alerted by Commerce's Evans about a call from Lay expressing a desire for government help in the weeks before its bankruptcy. Bush budget director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. received a call from Lay in October about prospects for the economic stimulus package. That package, as passed by the House, included a tax provision that would have provided Enron with a $254 million rebate, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Even Bush's homeland security director, Tom Ridge, had Enron ties. At Lay's urging, Bush called Ridge in 1997 when he was Pennsylvania governor to help with Enron's bid -- eventually successful -- to enter the Pennsylvania market.
At the Justice Department, Ashcroft and staff chief David Ayres -- Ashcroft's former campaign manager -- recused themselves from the Enron probe because of Enron contributions to Ashcroft's campaign funds.
The Justice Department decided that deputy staff chief David Israelite and communications director Barbara Comstock need not recuse themselves; both had worked for the Republican National Committee, which received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Enron. Thompson, Ashcroft's deputy, was a partner in a law firm, King & Spalding, that represented Enron, but he disagreed with a Democratic lawmaker who said Thompson should disqualify himself.
After Commerce's Evans received a call from Lay in which the Enron chief said he would value government calls to a private credit rating agency, Evans called into his office his counsel, Kassinger. Kassinger had earlier said he had provided "legal services" to Enron while a trade lawyer at the firm Vinson & Elkins LLP in Houston, Enron's hometown. Ultimately, Evans said, he decided not to intervene.
Treasury's O'Neill, who also got a call from Lay concerning Enron's dire finances, handed the matter over to Peter R. Fisher, the undersecretary for domestic finance. Fisher had holdings in Enron valued between $1,000 and $15,000 when he joined the administration, as did Mark A. Weinberger, the assistant treasury secretary for tax policy. Treasury's spokeswoman said Fisher's modest holdings were part of a trust that he does not control. O'Neill said the department provided no help to Enron, although it consulted with lenders.
Elsewhere in the administration, Trade Representative Zoellick received $50,000 in advisory fees from Enron and listed stock holdings between $15,000 and $50,000 -- relatively small percentages of his overall earnings and holdings (Zoellick sold his shares after joining the administration).
A score of other administration officials had Enron holdings, ranging from relatively small stakes held by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Export Import Bank Chairman John E. Robson to holdings exceeding $100,000 by Charlotte L. Beers, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.
At the SEC, Pitt faced requests this week from congressional Democrats and the watchdog group Common Cause that he remove himself from his agency's Enron investigation because he had been a securities lawyer who represented Andersen, Enron's auditor. FERC Chairman Wood, a friend of Lay's, replaced Curtis Hebert Jr. Hebert told the New York Times last year that Lay had said he wouldn't back his reappointment unless Hebert changed his views on electricity deregulation.
Even since its bankruptcy filing, the vestiges of Enron continue to touch those around the president. Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, flew to Houston yesterday for a $500-per-person fundraiser at the home of a former Enron president.
Staff writers George Lardner and Paul Blustein contributed to this report.
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