President Bush must view it as an unhappy coincidence that, just a day before he tries to restore public confidence in Tuesday's State of the Union Address, lawyers in Houston begin jury selection in the trials against Enron executives Ken Lay and Peter Skilling.
Since Enron collapsed in 2001 - dragging hundreds of thousands of workers, investors and retirees down with them - the entire saga has been treated mostly as a legal issue, and the current trials will reinforce that perception.
But the most important thing about Enron was the mutually corrupting relationship they held with political leaders, especially George W. Bush. As the excellent Texans for Public Justice noted:
The chief mourners of Enron's demise - apart from the investors and workers that it deceived - are the legions of lobbyists and politicians whom Enron fed. Enron spent $10.2 million in the last two election cycles (1997 through 2000) influencing Washington politicians. During this period, Enron moved $1,003,273 to Texas PACs and state candidates, as well as spending up to $4.8 million on 89 Texas lobby contracts.
Last year the Center for Public Integrity identified Enron as the single largest patron of George W. Bush's political career. A frequent flier on Enron corporate jets, Bush received $774,100 from Enron's PAC and executives - including $312,500 for his two gubernatorial campaigns.3
Bush's greatest gubernatorial gifts to Enron were:
- Deregulating state electric markets in 1999;
- Indulging "grandfathered air polluters;" and
- Laws protecting businesses from lawsuits.
It's no exaggeration to say that Enron may be one of the biggest reasons W is in the White House today - and he rewarded them handsomely for the patronage, in ways that were disasterous to the public interest. That's the real Enron scandal.
Don't get me wrong, I'm sure Lay and the Enron gang deserve all the legal charges brought against them, and more. The Texas Republican political machine hoped this trial would never happen.
In November 2001, when the scandal was unfolding before the national media, the first response of then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn - now a U.S. Senator, and a recipient of over $100,000 in Enron money at the time - was to say his office was "studying what response - if any - it will have" to Enron's massive fraud.
That was in stark contrast to Attorney General Bill Lockyer of blackout-bitten California, who said, "I would love to personally escort Lay to an 8 x 10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, 'Hi, my name is Spike, honey.'"