The real Enron story

I know that scandals are a dime a dozen now, but why is the Enron trial getting so little play? Ken Lay and Peter Skilling, who matchlessly meshed political power and greed, are charged with causing untold hardship to millions of people -- consumers, investors, and the political process.

They also revealed the follies of deregulation, something that utilities are eager to bring back to state legislatures across the country. Molly Ivins describes a recent scene from the trial now underway in Houston, which reveals how much Enron did to warp our country's energy policy:

Jeff Skilling was testifying along about the great rip-off that almost pushed California into bankruptcy when he observed that the state formerly called "Golden" had a regulatory environment like that of Brazil.

Prosecutor Sean Berkowitz stared at him. "Do you think it was funny what happened in California? You're smiling."

Skilling backtracked and said he regretted joking about it. But isn't it almost funny, what happened in California?

Remember the Enron energy traders who thought it was so funny they joked about ripping off "Grandma Millie," the residents of California and how unfair it was that they wanted their money back? All that madness when California was caught in this hopeless bind, having to buy energy at grossly inflated prices?

If the California legislators had been stupid enough to deregulate electricity in such a disastrous way on their own, they would deserve being laughed at. But they had help -- from Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. Enron spent more than $345,000 lobbying in California.

Skilling himself testified to utility commissioners that deregulation could save the state $8.9 billion: ``You can triple the number of police officers in Los Angles, San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego. The stakes are huge, and every minute that we delay bringing competitive markets to California allows the meter to keep ticking.''

Enron was very busy creating the regulatory climate of Brazil nationwide in those years. From 1997 to 2000, 24 states adopted energy deregulation, and Enron repeatedly sent Lay and Skilling to testify. The company spent more than $1.9 million in campaign contributions to more than 700 candidates in 28 states since 1997, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Lay and Skilling were first and foremost Bush's cronies, but they had Democrats in their pocket, too (including, famously, Paul Krugman, although it was just $50,000 in 1999). As Ivins ends her piece:

In the Enron case, our political system should be a codefendant -- campaign contributions, lobbyists, sell-outs and all.