Reading the MSM's coverage of Ken Lay's testimony -- side by side with its coverage of George Bush's latest bleating about energy -- I've been struck by how little discussion there is of Lay's and Enron's deep connections to Bush, Cheney, and the White House's energy company-dictated energy policy.
It would be like flash-forwarding four years to some future trial of Jack Abramoff and hearing nothing about Tom DeLay.
It's another symptom of the media's long-term memory disorder. Suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder, they can only focus on the thing in front of them -- and even then not for very long before moving on to the next shiny bauble (Tony Snow called Bush "impotent"! Natalie Holloway's still missing -- and still getting airtime on Larry King).
So instead of reminding us of all the reasons why Enron was even more of a political scandal than a business scandal, the media narrative has turned the case into a simple he said/he said story pitting "folksy" Ken Lay against repentant Raptor boy, Andy Fastow.
We hear about Lay's "folksy preacher style," "country charm," and efforts to portray himself as "a pious family man with humble origins" and Fastow as "a liar and a crook". But not about the millions Lay and Enron donated to Bush and the GOP or the secret meetings Lay had with Cheney regarding energy policy (more on these in a bit).
But even when focusing on the present, the media seem to be having memory lapses.
Thus, the New York Times tells us that Lay testified that he is "very, very anxious and trying to do all that I can to get the truth out" but doesn't point out that Lay has helped keep that truth from coming out for over four years by invoking his Fifth Amendment rights back in 2002 in order to avoid questions from congressional and Securities and Exchange Commission questions.
And, of course, Lay is having his own memory problems. He told jurors that if he had only retired when he originally planned, "I wouldn't be sitting here" -- as if that $20 million signing bonus he got for staying on had nothing to do with his decision.
A witness stand highpoint was hearing Lay echo the prior testimony of his partner-in-crime-Jeffrey Skilling -- as both men painted themselves as "optimistic." As if being a glass-half-full kind of guy excused the despicable deception Lay engaged in, urging his employees to invest more and more of their hard earned money in Enron stock even though he knew the company was in deep trouble -- and that he and Skilling had already cashed in stock worth $162 million ($100 mil for Lay, $62 mil for Skilling). I wonder if the 20,000 Enron employees who saw their retirement nest eggs cracked and turned sunny side down appreciated Lay's optimism.
But, as I said, the Enron scandal was about so much more than mere corporate greed -- and that's the context we're not getting. What made Enron so significant was what it revealed about the corruption of our political system -- about the unseemly link between big money donations and the influence those donations buy. And Bush and Cheney are standing smack dab in the middle of this neglected aspect of the story.
So, as a reminder, here's what we must not forget:
Lay didn't become "Kenny Boy" and an intimate FOG (Friend of George) because of his folksy charm. Enron and its executives doled out $2.4 million to federal candidates and parties in the 2000 election -- including $113,000 to the Bush/Cheney campaign. Lay and his wife also gave $100,000 to Bush's 2000 inaugural fund (Skilling chipped in $100,000 of his own), and another $5,000 each to the Bush-Cheney 2000 Recount Fund to help assure there'd be an inauguration. What's more, Lay even gave W's folks a ride to their son's 2000 inauguration on an Enron plane.
It was money well spent, buying Lay and his company what Rep. Henry Waxman has called "extensive access" to the epicenter of American political power. Access and influence.
For instance, in the early days of the Bush administration, while Enron was still flying very high, Lay and his company were given unprecedented input on the makeup of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency charged with regulating Enron's core business. Lay was allowed to personally put the screws to FERC chair Curtis Hebert in an effort to change his views on electricity deregulation. Hebert resisted, and was soon replaced by Pat Wood, Lay's handpicked choice.
Representatives of Enron also had at least six meetings with Cheney and his staff as part of the VP's secretive Energy Task Force., the last of which occurred just six days before the company revealed it had vastly overstated its earnings, signaling the beginning of the end for the energy giant. These meetings included at least one between Cheney and Lay.
It was at this meeting that Lay handed Cheney a memo that gave the administration its marching orders on how to handle the 2000-2001 California energy crisis -- a crisis that we now know was largely rigged by Enron and other energy companies. The crisis cost the state an estimated $45 billion.
Lay's memo called on the administration to "reject any attempt to re-regulate wholesale power markets by adopting price caps." Just a few weeks after literally getting the memo from Lay, Cheney said of price caps: "We think that's a mistake." Bush followed suit, announcing: "I oppose price caps". This cozy relationship allowed Enron traders to rip off the people of California with impunity.
Who (other than the reporters covering the Lay trial, that is) can forget those tapes where Enron traders joked about cashing in on the crisis they manipulated? Both "folksy" Ken Lay and his cover-providing pals in the White House bear responsibility for the California debacle.
So as Ken Lay continues to plead his case on the stand deep in the heart of Texas, never forget that this scandal is not just about the crooks who cooked the books at Enron, it's about how the White House gave the crooks a prominent seat at the policy table.
Whatever the outcome of Lay's trial, when it comes to being key players in the culture of corruption, Bush and Cheney are guilty as charged.