As President Bush warned crooked CEOs yesterday “we will hunt you down,” some critics wondered why they haven’t seen the ultimate photo op: Bush’s pal Kenneth Lay of Enron in handcuffs.
Nine months after Enron imploded, taking down thousands of investors and employees and setting off a wave of accounting scandals that knocked Wall Street to its knees, no charges have been filed against the company.
Enron’s collateral damage is everywhere. Its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, has been charged, tried and convicted. ImClone chief Sam Waksal faces up to 10 years in prison. Adelphia Communications and WorldCom honchos were led away in handcuffs.
But Enron is perceived as the first and worst, and there is a growing chorus asking why the firm’s top executives are enjoying their millions – taking vacations and attending society dinners, according to reports from Houston – instead of making license plates.
“I don’t know why we haven’t seen any indictments of Enron yet,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said recently. “More and more people, as I travel the country, ask: ‘What is going on there?'”
Lou Dobbs, the host of CNN’s “Moneyline” show and a Daily News columnist, airs a nightly “Enron Scoreboard” showing the number of indictments at various corporations compared with Enron’s zero. The question also pops up regularly on letters pages of newspapers around the country.
A complex case
The Justice Department says the Enron case is far more complex than the others, involving tangled deals that fall into the shady gray area between kosher and crooked.
“The department doesn’t work off of artificial deadlines,” said Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra. “The main priority of the prosecutors is to gather the evidence and build a case that they can prove in court.”
The Enron probe also has been complicated by the recusal of Attorney General John Ashcroft and the entire Houston U.S. attorney’s office because they took Enron money. “We had to set up a task force structure specifically for the collapse of one company,” Sierra said.
Democrats are quick to point out that Lay and Enron were Bush’s most generous backers, spending $2.8 million on political contributions since 1999. Lay personally gave the President and the GOP almost half a million dollars.
But experts said it’s naive to say Enron is skating because the President used to fondly call its CEO “Kenny Boy.”
“There’s every political incentive in the world to have Ken Lay do the perp walk,” said Henry Hu, a corporate and securities law professor at the University of Texas. “If anything, you would expect half the Bush cabinet to show up while they do it.”