Finally, a reporter had the temerity to question Bush on Friday regarding the ignominious collapse of Enron Corp. run by Kenneth L. Lay, a Bush family intimate and top campaign contributor. Bush expressed concern "for the citizens of Houston who worked for Enron who lost life savings" and added: "It's very important for us to fully understand the 'whys' of Enron."
Sure is, but did Bush never ask "Kenny Boy"--his nickname for Enron's chairman--what was going on?
After all, not only was Kenny Boy one of Bush's major contributors, but it was Lay and Enron that Bush turned to for critical advice on how to further exploit U.S. natural resources. The media, which had hounded Bill Clinton on his Whitewater connections, have allowed Bush to maintain the fiction that his--and his father's--administration had nothing to do with the debacle that is Enron.
Given the intense interest in the list of those who slept over in the Clinton White House, it's odd that no attention has been paid to Kenny Boy's sleepover in the early years of the senior Bush's White House.
Those early Bush years were crucial for Enron, beginning with the passage of the 1992 Energy Policy Act, which forced the established utility companies to carry Enron's electricity sales on their wires.
At the same time, Wendy Gramm, who served under the elder Bush as chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, allowed for an exemption in the trading of energy derivatives, which, as the Washington Post reported, "later became Enron's most lucrative business."
Once that was accomplished, Gramm, wife of Texas GOP Sen. Phil Gramm, resigned from her government post to take a position on the Enron board. As one of the members of the board's audit committee, she now is expected to be a key figure in the lawsuits and federal investigation revolving around Enron's collapse. Recently, the chief executive of Arthur Andersen, Enron's outside auditor, told a congressional committee that the accounting firm had warned the Enron audit committee of what he termed "possible illegal acts within the company."
Wendy Gramm is also mentioned in a bank lawsuit alleging insider trading as having sold $276,912 in Enron stock in November 1998. Her response is that she sold the stock to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, given that her husband was chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.
Yet she was still very much on the Enron board and being rewarded with future stock options when her husband last year pushed through legislation that exempted key elements of Enron's energy business from oversight by the federal government. Phil Gramm had obtained $97,350 in political contributions from Enron over the years, so perhaps he was acting on his own instincts and not his wife's urgings. The exemption was passed over the objection of the Clinton administration.
Wendy Gramm also directs the regulatory studies program at George Mason University, which has received $50,000 from Enron since 1996. Her academic institute is highly influential in arguing for deregulation, conveniently joining her corporate and academic interests.
Unfortunately for true-believer deregulators, the Enron collapse shreds their panacea. Surely no one, least of all Wendy Gramm, who has said she was kept unaware of the company's chicanery in hiding debt and conducting secret private deals to the detriment of stockholders, could argue today with a straight face that Enron was in need of less government oversight.
The fact is that there would be no Enron as we know it were it not for Republican-engineered changes in government regulation that permitted Enron its meteoric growth.
It's true that the corporation had its allies among the Democrats; campaign finance corruption and influence peddling are generally a cover-all-your-bets bipartisan activity. But in this case, the amounts given to Democrats were puny and late, and there's no doubt that Enron rode to power primarily on the strength of Lay's influence with the Bush family. This fact is not mitigated by Enron now hiring Clinton's former lawyer and various top Democratic lobbying groups, except to note that these hired guns have no shame.
The Bush family ties to Kenny Boy Lay are just too intimate and lucrative to ignore.
There also are at least four Enron consultants and executives who hold high positions within the Bush White House, and some of them may be drawn into the investigations that cannot be avoided, despite the distractions of the war on terror.
As John Dean once famously said of the Nixon administration, there is a cancer growing on the presidency, but in this case it's name is Enron, and it won't go away by being ignored.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times