TCS Daily

The Enron Witch Hunt Begins

By Duane D. Freese - February 5, 2002 12:00 AM

"Man was conceived in sin and born in corruption. There is always something."
So said Willie Stark, the cross between Louisiana's Kingfish, Huey Long, and Joseph McCarthy, in Robert Penn Warren's All the Kings Men.

Such human frailty is one reason that when political witch-hunts get started you never know who'll end up getting burned.

Many Democrats hope to tie the Bush administration to the stake to win political points going into the elections later this year. The focal point has been Vice President Richard Cheney's energy task force. In particular, Democrats want to know who on the task force met with which Enron officials and when. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., claims that's important because 17 recommendations from the task force would have benefited Enron in some way.

On Monday, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., added his fire, blistering the Bush administration as "a cash and carry government" for Enron. He even referred to Attorney General John Ashcroft as the company's attorney at Justice as prelude to calling for a special prosecutor.

But such aspersion, related without evidence and based almost strictly upon association, can quickly turn against anyone.

Last week, the Boston Herald reported that the firm headed by Democratic Sen. John Kerry's top fundraiser, Robert Crowe,
performed $80,000 worth of lobbying work
for Enron over the last two years.

Kerry, who is positioning himself for a presidential run, recently outlined his own energy plan, attacking the Bush administration for its ties to the energy industry. In a speech Jan. 24, he declaimed, "Exxon Mobil, Enron or Chevron enjoyed an access bonanza at the expense of consumers and state of the art environmental technology manufacturers" when Vice President Richard Cheney's energy task force drew up the administration's energy plan.

Kerry spokeswoman Kelley Benandar emphatically denies any influence by Crowe on the senator's own policy. "No one at the Commonwealth Group (headed by Crowe) ever lobbied John Kerry on behalf of Enron,'' she said.

But how can we know that? How can we know what Crowe or any other person associated with Enron in any way might have said to the senator at a cocktail party or fundraiser? Do we need an accounting of all the senator's meetings? And what about his proposals? Would any of them benefit any company with whom he or his staff had meetings? Don't we need to know about that, too?

And what about the ties between Sen. Joseph Lieberman and his friend and former chief of staff Michael Lewan, who received $40,000 as an Enron consultant last year and arranged meetings between Enron officials and Lieberman's staff.

Lieberman hasn't recused himself as head of another Senate committee investigating the Enron collapse, even though his campaign received $2,000 from Enron and a political action committee he founded another $25,000.

Why shouldn't he step aside? How do we know he can be trusted?

Well, in truth, you can't know anything for certain. Politics ought never be a "cash and carry" business, but it is a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" profession by definition. A politician constantly must ask people for support, and people constantly ask of politicians 'what have you done or will do for me.'

Sen. Hollings is involved in such transactions every day. He acts on behalf of textile interests in his state, even if in doing so he raises the prices of clothing to consumers everywhere. And he gets campaign donations for doing so - from labor and textile manufacturers. Does that make him corrupt? Hardly. It simply means that other senators representing those consumer interests must step forward on trade issues to protect them.

Now, Enron has sparked interest because its bankruptcy came about so suddenly. But it didn't happen overnight. The report issued over the weekend by investigators hired by Enron's board paint a damning picture of partnerships created that paid off key executives, making them millions, while covering up losses to other investors.

As Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., pointed out, ''Enron was running a gigantic pyramid scheme that went on for several years over hundreds, perhaps thousands, of transactions. How it escaped the notice of the board of directors, of the outside auditors, of the outside lawyers, of the investment banks, of the Wall Street analysts and, finally, the SEC, is a great mystery."

In short, where was the Clinton administration in all this? Does the fact that former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin called Bush officials mean that it was in cahoots with Enron executives' duplicity? Where was it while the pyramid of fictitious profits built up?

So, there's a lot of blame that can be spread around. But those who do so ought to make sure that they are hitting the right target.

Lieberman, for his part, says, "Ultimately, I'll be judged by the job that I do. I'm committed to doing an investigation that's comprehensive, aggressive and fair."

To be judged by the job, not by some past association. That's a good standard by which to judge both a person's action and a policy's effect.

Such a standard is how the Bush administration's energy proposal -- all 105 recommendations worth -- deserves to be judged, too. Simply harping on whom it is that might get some benefit is no reliable standard at all, because every policy will benefit someone. Sen. Kerry's energy proposals certainly do. The issue is whether they serve a larger national purpose.

If you look for guilt by association, you can always find something. But that's how witch-hunts begin - and get out of hand.

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