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All The President's Enrons
By Frank Rich
July 6, 2002

From the NY Times

George W. Bush is so peeved about corporate America's "wrongdoers" - not to be confused with "evildoers" - that last week he spoke out about them four times in four days. By the time he took a breather, the markets had hit their worst half-year finish since 1970, the Nasdaq was at a five-year low, the dollar was on the skids and, despite much evidence to the contrary, a majority of Americans had told CNN/USA Today pollsters that the country was in a recession.

On Tuesday the president returns to the subject in a full-dress speech on Wall Street. Maybe it's time to try pinning the whole mess on Ann Richards again.

Mr. Bush keeps saying all the right things. He is "deeply concerned." He will "hold people accountable." But words, like stocks, lose value when nothing backs them up. It is now more than six months since the president promised "a lot of government inquiry into Enron." Since then, Playboy has done a better job of exposing the women of Enron than the Bush administration has done at exposing its men. Just as the Justice Department rounded up some 1,000 alleged Sept. 11 suspects and failed to indict a single one of them for terrorist activity, so it has made a big show of its shaky Andersen conviction while failing to indict a single Enron executive or individual Andersen accountant. (Not that all the law-enforcement news is downbeat: last month John Ashcroft's minions held a press conference to boast that a 13-month investigation had led to the arrest of 12 prostitutes in New Orleans.)

The sight of a corporate crook being led away in handcuffs, Giuliani-style, would do far more to restore confidence in Wall Street than any more presidential blather. Mr. Bush says that only "a few bad actors" are at fault. Why is the administration so lax about bringing them to justice?

That may have something to do with who those "few bad actors" are. Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Richard Grasso, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, tossed out a range of 1 to 15 as the rough count of corporate culprits, "in comparison to more than 10,000 publicly traded corporations." The fact remains that so far at least five members of that theoretically tiny club have direct ties to the Bush administration: Enron, Halliburton, Andersen, KMPG and Merrill Lynch - the last three all former clients of the president's choice as Wall Street's top cop, the S.E.C. chairman Harvey Pitt. Five for 15: Mr. Bush could have used a batting average that high when he ran the Texas Rangers.

Despite this record, there has been only balking, not housecleaning, at the White House. Thomas White, who was vice chairman of Enron Energy Services when it allegedly hid $500 million in losses and manipulated the California energy crisis, is still secretary of the Army, despite having been cited by the Senate Armed Services Committee for violating his signed ethics agreement. (Even worse, Mr. White has threatened to bring to the Army his "understanding of best business practices.") The record of Enron contacts by him and countless other administration officials remains incomplete and in constant revision. What information does dribble out often emanates from the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, who himself had an attorney-client relationship with Enron while a partner at Vinson & Elkins in Houston.

Perhaps it's Mr. Gonzales who, as the administration's chief ethics maven, advised the White House this week on how to handle the 1991 S.E.C. report showing that Mr. Bush had filed disclosures of his stock trades in Harken Energy, where he was a director, as much as eight months late. The ethical call? Blame Harken's lawyers. A presidential spokesman assured us as well that this infraction amounted to nothing more than driving 60 in a 55-mile-per-hour zone. That will surely bring good cheer to those Harken shareholders who were left holding the stock that Mr. Bush sold, with no insider's knowledge, of course, just before it tanked.

WorldCom is a political boon to the president because it allows him to moralize about epic-scale crime without mentioning Enron, Halliburton or Harken. But the Enron bomb hasn't been defused. Its next detonation may come the day someone outside the administration unearths the as-yet mostly secret names of those buddies of Enron executives who were let into the hundreds of side partnerships that overnight yielded multimillion-dollar plunder on nominal stakes (with ordinary stockholders left paying the bill). "Not in memory has a single major company grown so big in tandem with a presidential dynasty and a corrupted political system," wrote the Republican political analyst Kevin Phillips in The Los Angeles Times five months ago, tracing Bush family favor-swapping with Enron back to 1988 and likening Enron's potential damage to that of the Harding administration's Teapot Dome scandals. "The question now is whether what went up together will come down together."

It's a question only Mr. Bush can answer. He can give the oil cronies within his administration an ethical pass, much as Harding did. He can keep trying to finesse the Wall Street crisis with rhetorical panaceas as empty as his father's "Message: I care" response to his own economic storm. Or he can fulfill a campaign promise and become a reformer with results, a Teddy Roosevelt who cleans up capitalism to make it stronger.

No flowery speeches are required to describe the reforms needed now, from fully independent policing of accounting firms to the complete prohibition of conflicts of interest that encourage both accountants and stockbrokers to cut corners. "No off-balance-sheet or offshore entities, no shell corporations, no sham transactions," adds Robert Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, who is pursuing Enron more aggressively than the administration is. Arthur Levitt, the former S.E.C. chairman, urges legislation that increases the legal liability for investment bankers, lawyers and accountants who aid, abet and also profit from corporate Ponzi schemes.

The president could get real reform "in a heartbeat," says Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general, who went after Merrill Lynch while the Pitt S.E.C. slept. "All he has to do is call Oxley" - Michael Oxley, who is steering a weak Republican "reform" bill through the House - "and say this is the bill we're passing instead." But that's about as likely as Martha Stewart discovering a cure for cancer instead of trying to cash in on one. Mr. Bush has already opposed the notion of requiring corporations to count executive stock options as expenses - a simple fix endorsed by Alan Greenspan and Warren Buffett as an antidote to fictional profits. The Treasury Department, Newsweek reports, is hard at work stifling a bill that would end the offshore shenanigans that allowed Enron (with 800-plus such entities) to evade taxes in four out of five years.

Even within existing law, the Bush administration's notion of enforcement is the antithesis of T.R.'s: it speaks loudly and carries a small stick. On Wednesday a judge threw out an S.E.C. action against the accounting firm Ernst & Young because the S.E.C. could not muster the quorum of conflict-free commissioners required by law to bring its case; both Mr. Pitt and another Bush S.E.C. appointee had previously worked for Ernst & Young. Mr. Pitt's conflicts also include meeting privately with Xerox and KPMG executives while their companies are under investigation by his agency. "It's like the mob's consigliere running the F.B.I," in the words of Marshall Wittmann, a T.R.-minded conservative Republican at the Hudson Institute.

As Mr. Bush blames others for his Harken mishaps, so Mr. Pitt's new shtick is to hide behind Bill Clinton, telling Matt Lauer, "this is, unfortunately, a mess that I inherited from the prior administration." But it was Mr. Pitt who invited the likes of WorldCom to play fast and loose by implying last fall that no one need fear the "kinder and gentler" S.E.C. he would install in place of Mr. Levitt's, which initiated the Xerox and Rite Aid cases that Mr. Pitt would now like to take credit for.

It's not that Democrats are clean. When Al Gore blasted Mr. Pitt last weekend for having led the accounting industry's drive "to open up loopholes" in the 1990's, he could have been describing his own ticket mate, Joe Lieberman, who was second to none in doing the accounting industry's bidding. But the Democrats don't have the power to undo the damage anyway. It is Mr. Bush who is C.E.O. If he doesn't bring zero tolerance of corporate cheating to his own White House, it's hard to imagine Americans rushing back into the market trusting that his administration will enforce it anywhere else.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


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