PRESIDENT George W. Bush says he's had "no contact with Enron officials in the last six weeks."
That's a relief. It shows he has sense enough to know when a corporation has turned radioactive and is best approached at the end of a 10-foot pole. Still, this leaves almost an entire year in which Enron officials waltzed in and out of the White House enjoying an unusual degree of access. The Washington Post reports that Vice President Dick Cheney or his aides found time to meet with Enron officials on six occasions in 2001.
On the face of it, this may not even seem excessive for an administration in which corporate interests have been given an extraordinary degree of influence. And besides, David S. Addington, the vice president's counsel, wrote a letter insisting that "Enron did not communicate information about its financial position in any of the meetings with the vice president or with the National Energy Development Group's support staff."
That's a relief as well. Since Enron's financial troubles weren't discussed, this presumably shows Enron wasn't looking for some squalid favor that would permit it to avoid one of the most spectacular bankruptcies in history.
It was probably just seeking to influence some government action that would advance the general interests of Enron, perhaps relief from some obnoxious regulation promulgated in the Clinton administration that stood between Enron and its ambitions to become the world's largest corporation. And in the energy-friendly Bush administration, what more logical place to come than the White House?
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) can be forgiven his cynicism about these Enron meetings. He said, "It shows Enron far exceeded the access provided by the White House to other parties interested in energy policy." Certainly, it exceeds the access that would be granted to, say, a bunch of high-minded old ladies in hand-knitted sweaters pleading against a rape of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Anyway, White House officials said the Enron meetings reflected nothing more sinister than the "open and inclusive" policy of the vice president's energy task force. They made it sound like all the meetings had taken place in plain sight on the White lawn.
Anyway, the Enron meetings continued until just days before the company started to collapse. Cheney's aides met with executives of Enron's German subsidiary on Aug. 7 and with Enron officials on Oct. 10. Six days later, Enron's troubles became news, and the shell of its assets became transparent to the world.
A little more than a month later, Enron announced $55 million in bonuses to 500 key employees. Another 4,000 employees got pink slips and $4,500 in severance pay to console them for 401(k) balances that had become close to worthless because the bulk of it was in Enron shares.
This gave off an odor of favoritism until it was explained that somebody had to be induced to stay around and pick over the bones of Enron's carcass for what assets could be preserved. The $55 million began to look like a small price to pay for this, considering that last year the corporation had $101 billion in sales.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.