In February 2001 Enron presented an imposing facade, but insiders knew better:
they were desperately struggling to keep their Ponzi scheme going. When one top
executive learned of millions in further losses, his e-mailed response summed
up the whole strategy: "Close a bigger deal. Hide the loss before the 1Q."
The strategy worked. Enron collapsed, but not before insiders made off with
nearly $1 billion. The sender of that blunt e-mail sold $12 million in stocks
just before they became worthless. And now he's secretary of the Army.
Dick Cheney vehemently denies that talk of war, just weeks before the midterm
elections, is designed to divert attention from other matters. But in that case
he won't object if I point out that the tide of corporate scandal is still rising,
and lapping ever closer to his feet.
An article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal confirmed what some of us have
long argued: market manipulation by energy companies probably the same companies
that wrote Mr. Cheney's energy plan, though he has defied a court order to release
task force records played a key role in California's electricity crisis. And
new evidence indicates that Mr. Cheney's handpicked Army secretary was a corporate
Mr. Cheney supposedly chose Thomas White for his business expertise. But when
it became apparent that the Enron division he ran was a money-losing fraud, the
story changed. We were told that Mr. White was an amiable guy who had no idea
what was actually going on, that his colleagues referred to him behind his back
as "Mr. Magoo." Just the man to run the Army in a two-front Middle Eastern war,
But he was no Magoo. Jason Leopold, a reporter writing a book about California's
crisis, has acquired Enron documents that show Mr. White fully aware of what his
division was up to. Mr. Leopold reported his findings in the online magazine Salon,
and has graciously shared his evidence with me. It's quite damning.
The biggest of several deals that allowed Mr. White to "hide the loss" a
deal in which the documents show him intimately involved was a 15-year contract
to supply electricity and natural gas to the Indiana pharmaceutical company Eli
Lilly. Any future returns from the deal were purely hypothetical. Indeed, the
contract assumed a deregulated electricity market, which didn't yet exist in Indiana.
Yet without delivering a single watt of power and having paid cash up front
to Lilly, not the other way around Mr. White's division immediately booked a
Was this legal? There are certain cases in which companies are allowed to
use "mark to market" accounting, in which they count chickens before they are
hatched but normally this requires the existence of a market in unhatched eggs,
that is, a forward market in which you can buy or sell today the promise to deliver
goods at some future date. There were no forward markets in the services Enron
promised to provide; extremely optimistic numbers were simply conjured up out
of thin air, then reported as if they were real, current earnings. And even if
this was somehow legal, it was grossly unethical.
If outsiders had known Enron's true financial position when Mr. White sent
that e-mail, the stock price would have plummeted. By maintaining the illusion
of success, insiders like Mr. White were able to sell their stock at good prices
to naοve victims people like their own employees, or the Florida state workers
whose pension fund invested $300 million in Enron during the company's final months.
As Fortune's recent story on corporate scandal put it: "You bought. They sold."
It was crony capitalism at its worst. What kind of administration would keep
Mr. White in office?
A story in last week's Times may shed light on that question. It concerned
another company that sold a division, then declared that its employees had "resigned,"
allowing it to confiscate their pensions. Yet this company did exactly the opposite
when its former C.E.O. resigned, changing the terms of his contract so that he
could claim full retirement benefits; the company took an $8.5 million charge
against earnings to reflect the cost of its parting gift to this one individual.
Only the little people get shafted.
The other company is named Halliburton. The object of its generosity was Dick
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company