A Viewer's Guide to the Enron Hearings
Save some of Sunday's Super Bowl pizza because on Feb. 4, Washington will begin its own weeklong spectacle: a slam-bang scandal replete with shredded documents, whistle-blowers, tearful retirees, fleeced investors, sham offshore subsidiaries, huge campaign contributions, White House stonewalling, a scapegoat, a suicide, and a millionaire exec with a wife crying poverty.
So far, a dozen Capitol Hill committees are scrambling to snag witnesses, obtain documents, and reserve hearing rooms. With so many committees vying for eyeballs, there's bound to be exciting testimony, shocking revelations, and a rising star politician. Here comes the Enron Bowl:
POTENTIAL SLEEPER ****
Representative Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, will attempt on Feb. 4 and 5 to cast ex-CEO Kenneth L. Lay in the role of Dr. Frankenstein and portray Andersen CEO Joseph Berardino as Igor. Also on the grill is SEC Chairman Harvey L. Pitt for his inaction on accounting shenanigans. Oxley wants to paint this as a corporate, not political, scandal and to help distance President Bush from first pal "Kenny Boy."
TOUGHEST HEARING *****
Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) chairs the permanent subcommittee on investigations of the Governmental Affairs Committee, historically a vigorous panel that's armed with subpoena power. A rumpled, plodding, liberal reformer, Levin may provide the hottest seat for corporate miscreants once he gets rolling. Levin wants new regs on industry--lots of 'em. He also wants to send the message that the GOP's hands-off approach to business doesn't work.
BEST DRAMA *****
The prize is likely to go to the cagey Cajun, House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.). Tauzin released the letter from whistle-blower Sherron S. Watkins warning that Enron was about to "implode" in an accounting scandal. He is sitting on 80 boxes of hot docs, certain to yield more outrages. On Feb. 5, he'll have Enron Director William C. Powers Jr. in the dunking chair. Tauzin aims to be the lead story on the evening news.
BEST COMIC RELIEF ***
Populist Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.) chairs the Senate Commerce Committee and is widely known for his Southern wit: He once quipped that if President Clinton's popularity recovered from the Lewinsky scandal, "He can start dating again." Fritz plans to flay Lay early on Feb. 4. There will be laughs for sure. Hollings could get stricter regs on 401(k) pensions and accounting firms.
BIGGEST YAWN **
Cautious Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairman of the full Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, wants to look substantive and bipartisan, since that's the best persona for his 2004 Presidential ambitions. His committee's ranking Republican, Fred Thompson (Tenn.), will go with gravity, too. Still, Lieberman risks viewer fatigue if early shows have all the good stuff. Staffers, apparently from the Planet Tedium, insist they'll be looking at the big picture.
By Paul Magnusson, with Mike McNamee, Lorraine Woellert, and Laura Cohn, in Washington