While investigations into the Enron collapse gather steam, Americans stare in disgust as the dissection of the political machinations of one of the nation’s largest energy corporations reveals the way it exercised long-term, big-money influence to control elected officials and government agencies. Unfortunately, as the cover is ripped off Enron’s financial and political can of worms, the public’s ability to trust politicians and government will, justifiably, be eroded. No one can predict how far the scandal will spread, but from what we already know, it looks like the political apple of our nation’s capital is rotten to the core.
During his campaign for the presidency, George W. Bush lambasted the Clinton administration on a daily basis and promised to restore dignity and accountability to the White House. But as it turns out, Bush’s ties to the energy industry, and that industry’s influence on the Bush administration, are restoring neither dignity nor accountability. First, there was the National Energy Plan cooked up by Vice President Dick Cheney and his “energy task force.” When the plan was unveiled, it mostly contained supply-side proposals to drill, mine, and burn our way into the future, global warming be damned. Since it looked like it was put together by the self-interested captains of the energy industry, some members of Congress decided to ask Cheney just who his “advisors” were on this “national” plan. Cheney declined to provide that information and the General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress’ investigative arm, has threatened to sue the White House to get the info. Cheney, who made millions working in the energy industry, obviously feels he has something to hide. As we trace the tentacles of Enron into the Bush administration, that “something” becomes more apparent each day.
President Bush himself, for instance, was the top recipient of oil and gas largesse during the last election, garnering millions in soft-money, in-kind, and direct contributions. And guess who led the list of oil industry donors? Yep, our old pals at Enron. Unfortunately, President Bush is not the only one in his administration with direct ties to Enron. At least 14 other top-level administration officials have been reported to have financial ties to Enron, including his strategic advisor Karl Roves, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, Secretary of the Army Thomas White, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, who took $75,000 from Enron in his failed senatorial bid and has now recused himself from the investigation into Enron’s financial, political, and stock market manipulations. Add to that Bush’s choice to head the Republican National Committee, Montana’s former governor Marc Racicot, who left the state to be one of Enron’s top D.C. lobbyists.
Guess who else turns up high on the Enron contribution list? Why, it’s Montana’s own Sen. Conrad Burns, who comes in at Number 3 with a $23,200 donation to his last campaign. Now why would a Montana senator be the highest non-Texan senatorial recipient of Enron campaign contributions? Could it have anything to do with further energy exploitation of federal lands in places like the Rocky Mountain Front? Or maybe it’s just the Senator’s commitment to electricity deregulation, from which Montana has suffered and Enron has made billions. Perhaps Conrad will tell us what makes him so special that Enron decided to give a Montana “good old boy” as much as the average Montanan makes in a year. Then again, given the fine example of dignity and accountability shown by his buddy, Vice President Cheney, most likely he won’t.
Nor are things much better in the theoretically regulated financial arena. While Enron’s top officers (and those who maybe had an “inside tip” in the Bush administration) sold off their stocks for millions, thousands of Enron’s employees who held company stock in their 401(k) retirement plans were prohibited from doing so. The top dogs made a billion-dollar killing while their lowly employees watched the stock plummet from more than $80 to less than a dollar a share, wiping out their retirement savings. Only now is it being revealed that Enron cooked its books, failing to show $20 billion in debt, and implicating Arthur Andersen & Company, one of the nation’s largest auditing firms, of complicity in the scandal. The Andersen firm, which took $52 million in fees from Enron last year, is currently under investigation by House and Senate committees, the GAO, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Of an Andersen lawyer’s memo urging the destruction of paper and electronic records of Enron’s accounts, Senator Joseph Lieberman (D–Conn.), chair of the Senate’s Governmental Affairs Committee, told “Face the Nation” that “the memo raises very serious questions about whether obstruction of justice occurred.”
All in all, this quickly mounting pile of evidence is doing nothing more than documenting the long and continuing exercise of brutal political and market manipulation by this nation’s energy industry. As if on command, President Bush recently announced that his administration would be dumping years-long work on boosting gas-powered vehicle engines to 80 miles per gallon and embark instead on a new, hydrogen-powered initiative. The result is that cars, trucks, and SUVs, will continue to suck massive amounts of petroleum and exude tons of pollutants to achieve minimal mileage. While oil companies continue to make billions, our hopes for clean transportation gets shoved a few more decades away.
Maybe the evolving Enron scandal will lead to reforms in the campaign, lobbying, and finance laws that have so obviously failed us. But I wouldn’t bet on it. As President Bush told an upscale dinner audience during his campaign: “This is an impressive crowd, the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.” And then remember the Golden Rule of Politics: “Those with the gold, make the rules.” When you put them together, you wind up with an administration so shot through with the rot of influence, power, and money, that nothing short of starting over is likely to change a thing.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.