Mr. Lay Goes to Washington

As expected, Enron's former boss didn't talk at a Capitol Hill hearing. His Senate inquisitors, also as expected, wouldn't shut up

By Dan Carney

Webster's New World Dictionary defines a hearing as "a formal meeting of...a legislative committee in which evidence is presented, testimony is given, etc." Alas, not much of that happened at the Senate Commerce Committee on Feb. 12.

All the chamber got was former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay trying in vain to strike a respectful pose as he sat in stony silence. The senators vented. He nodded. They vented more. He nodded more. Finally he pleaded the Fifth and was whisked away. You could almost hear the tacit scolding from the panel as he walked out -- "Bad, Kenny Boy! Bad! Don't let us catch you here again -- or we'll make you stay even longer the next time."


  Such spectacles have their place. A little humiliation can serve as a palliative if the witness won't offer the truth. But as political theater goes, the Enron scandal on Capitol Hill is quickly devolving. This latest episode was less an examination of the issues than a chance for pols to test their stump speeches.

Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) called Lay "the most accomplished confidence man since Charles Ponzi." Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) told Lay the anger directed at him was "palpable." Other senators won't find much to disagree with in these observations. That's because they've all made similar ones of their own.

A few of the senators had been big beneficiaries of Enron's largesse -- and so had less room to maneuver. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) received $101,500 over the last six election cycles from the company. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) took in $23,200 over the same period. So they chose to focus on the "bigger picture" of restoring the confidence of the investor class and preventing similar debacles. I was reminded of Claude Rains in Casablanca, scolding Humphrey Bogart for the gambling in his café just as an aide hands Rains his winnings. Yes, we're all "shocked, shocked."


  One by one, every member of the Senate committee showed up to offer their views on Enron. Perfect committee attendance is almost unheard of, except when panel votes are scheduled. Nothing like live TV coverage to bring lawmakers to the fore. The cameras were also enough to lure onetime Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. He didn't get much traction in the hearing room, where he was just another observer of the pageant. But he was a hit with the tourists lined up outside, some of whom got to pose for pictures with Jackson as he busily shook hands.

Then there was Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who just seems to love lengthy speeches. She sat through most of Bill Clinton's impeachment trial in a chair in a corner of the Senate chamber. And she showed up at the Enron hearing taking copious notes. Perhaps someone should have told her events like these are best seen on TV. That seems to be their purpose after all.

Carney covered the Lay appearance for BusinessWeek in Washington

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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