Criminal Intent

It was playwright Bertold Brecht who said that the only crime greater than robbing a bank was founding one. Brecht must have been thinking of powerful and cunning individuals like Enron chairman and CEO Kenneth Lay when he said that.

Lay, who drew a salary and compensation package of nearly $42 million in 1999, and other top-level executives at Enron, recently cashed in a lucrative bag of stock options before the bubble burst on the company’s troubled scheme of investments.

For Lay the take was a cool $150 million. No doubt, every Ponzi scheme organizer and rapacious con man must be red with envy. But anger, not envy, is needed here.

Sure, Enron employees who saw retirement accounts disappear faster than a wallet at a pickpocket’s convention are entitled to outrage. But the onus rests on the voting public to hold Lay and others accountable.

So, where is the outrage? Don’t go looking for it at the Wall Street Journal or among the halls of corporate America . Strange how the debate, especially at the Journal, is focused on government oversight and not on Enron and Lay. In a recent article WSJ reporter Gerald Seib, referring to the affair, said that “the real scandal usually lies not in what is illegal, but in what is legal”.

Excuse me? Read that line again.

Talk about a slight of hand. If we were fleeced by a con man in a bank parking lot we’d, more than likely, run straight to the police. And it’s likely that we would want to throttle whomever was responsible. So where is the public outrage over a company that acts with such public disregard – a company so closely allied to the current presidential administration that it has contributed $550,000 to President George Bush over his political career, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Wait a minute. Could it be that the word “Integrity” could share the same sentence with the words “Enron” and “Bush”?

Unlike the French, the Poles, or the Argentinean, Americans show a curious lack of solidarity when such incidents take place. Remember the Savings and Loan scandal? How many fires did we see in the streets over that swindle?

Not one. Yet, John Q. Public was left with the bill. Will the Enron caper be the same?

Perhaps not. For a golden opportunity awaits. Given the recent fervor for military tribunals it stands to reason that Americans should ask that acts like those seen at Enron be accorded the special status as an “economic terrorist act”. Attorney General John Ashcroft has shown an exemplary talent at meting out punishment where he thinks punishment is due. Why not here? Why not some form of “citizen’s tribunal” for Mr. Lay and his cronies at Enron? Kill two birds with one stone I say.

And unless you think this is a partisan issue – it’s not.

The Clinton administration was also cozy with Enron – as evidenced by the administration’s willingness to threaten cutting aid to the poor African Country of Mozambique if the country did not award a lucrative gas pipeline to… well, you know who.