Dec. 21, 2001
Electricity, Commodities Deregulation Allowed Enron to Loot Billions from Lenders, Shareholders, Employees and Consumsers
Tangled Web of Deceit, Political Influence Must be Unraveled by Congress
WASHINGTON, D.C. ? After Enron Corp. used its vast web of political connections to win December 2000 passage of commodities trading legislation that helped the company shield its energy trading activities from government scrutiny, California?s energy crisis suddenly took a dramatic turn for the worse as artificial supply shortages led to frequent rolling blackouts, according to a new Public Citizen report released Friday.
The legislation reducing government oversight of energy trading was muscled through Congress ? without a Senate committee hearing ? with the aid of U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. Gramm was chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which had jurisdiction over the legislation he co-sponsored, but he chose to bypass his committee, and the bill was quietly tacked onto a “must-pass” appropriations bill late in the session. Gramm?s wife, Wendy Gramm, also aided Enron?s rise to power. As chairwoman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, she pushed through a key regulatory exemption on Jan. 14, 1993, just as she was about to leave office. Five weeks later, she joined Enron?s board of directors, where she served on the board?s audit committee and had access to key financial information about the company.
On Sept. 4 of this year, Sen. Gramm announced that he would not run for re-election in 2002. Then in November, shareholders and federal regulators learned the extent of Enron?s financial troubles. Since the revelations, the company has filed the largest corporate bankruptcy in history, and shareholders, lenders and Enron employees have lost billions of dollars.
“Millions of people in California paid outrageously inflated prices for electricity because of Enron?s ability to manipulate the markets for electricity and natural gas, and thousands of Enron employees and shareholders have been devastated because of insider dealing and financial trickery,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “Republicans in Congress investigated Whitewater for years and spent millions of dollars. But that pales in comparison to Enron-gate. Congress needs to turn over every rock and see what crawls out from underneath. They should ask, who knew what and when did they know it? Investigations into any criminal conduct should extend to the political players who aided and abetted this company?s rapacious rampage across America. We should make no distinction between the officers who committed these acts and the politicians who enabled them.”
Public Citizen called on Congress to force Wendy and Phil Gramm and Treasury Secretary Paul O?Neill to testify under oath about their knowledge of Enron?s alleged accounting fraud and use of offshore tax and bank regulation havens. Public Citizen also said that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and political adviser Karl Rove should also be required to answer questions about whether administration officials discussed policies involving energy price controls, other energy regulations or tax havens with Enron representatives. Bush adamantly resisted price controls even though California?s wholesale energy costs had almost quadrupled in 2000; at the same time, Enron?s trading revenues nearly tripled.
The Public Citizen report ? Blind Faith: How Deregulation and Enron?s Influence Over Government Looted Billions from Americans ? details the political connections and government actions that helped Enron become the most prominent energy trader in the world before its recent collapse. The report found that:
From June through December 2000, California experienced only one Stage 3 electricity emergency (which requires rolling blackouts). But following passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which shielded Enron?s and others? trading activities from regulators, the state had 38 Stage 3 emergencies ? ending only when federal regulators finally imposed price controls in June 2001.
Enron took advantage of lax government oversight and formed a complex web of more than 2,800 subsidiaries ? 874 of which were located in offshore tax and banking regulation havens, mostly in the Cayman Islands. Upon assuming office in 2001, Bush ? who has accepted $2 million from Enron during his political career and counts Enron chief executive Kenneth Lay as a close personal friend ? scrapped plans put into place by former President Bill Clinton to limit the ability of corporations to effectively use these offshore havens. The action came at the height of high West Coast energy prices, which would have allowed Enron to funnel billions in excess profits to offshore accounts.
As a lame-duck chairwoman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Wendy Gramm exempted Enron and other energy futures traders from oversight in response to a request by Enron. At the time, Enron was a significant source of political funding for her husband. Five weeks later, she joined the company?s board and served on the board?s audit committee, where she would have had access to the company?s financial details. The chief executive of Arthur Andersen, Enron?s outside auditor, testified before congressional investigators in December that “illegal acts” may have been committed at the company.
“Buried amid the rubble of Enron?s fallen house of cards are the political ties that allowed this greedy company to rip off the public and its own employees, who saw their retirement accounts vanish overnight ? even as top executives were bailing out and walking away with hundreds of millions of dollars,” said report author Tyson Slocum, research director for Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “There?s an object lesson here for those who decry government regulation: Absent a strong regulatory presence, greed prevails and consumers get the shaft. We?ve seen it time and time again.”