Enron founder Ken Lay and his family rank among President Bush’s biggest financial backers of his political career. The family donated about $140,000 to Bush’s political campaigns in Texas and for the White House. The president personally nicknamed Ken Lay 'Kenny Boy.' Our guest Greg Palast examined the connections between Enron and the Bush administration in his documentary "Bush Family Fortunes." [includes rush transcript]
We turn now to the connections between President Bush and Enron. Enron founder Ken Lay and his family rank among President Bush’s biggest financial backers of his political career. The family donated about $140,000 to Bush’s political campaigns in Texas and for the White House. The president personally nicknamed Ken Lay "Kenny Boy." Overall Enron employees gave Bush some $600,000 in political donations. According to the Center for Public Integrity this made Enron Bush’s top career donor–a distinction the company maintained until 2004. Shortly after Bush took office in 2001, Vice President Cheney met with Enron officials while he was developing the administration’s energy policies. Our guest Greg Palast examined the connections between Enron and the Bush administration in his documentary "Bush Family Fortunes."
- Excerpt of the documentary "Bush Family Fortunes".
Enron’s influence reached as far as Uzbekistan. In January, we interviewed the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray. He spoke about the relationship between President Bush and the Uzbek regime of President Karimov.
- Craig Murray, former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the things that wasn’t addressed very much yesterday, though there was wall-to-wall coverage of the trial and the verdict that came down yesterday for Skilling and for Lay — Ken Lay found guilty on every count — is the connection between President Bush and Enron. Enron founder Ken Lay and his family rank among President Bush’s biggest financial backers of his political career. The family donated about $140,000 to Bush’s political campaigns in Texas and for the White House.
The President personally nicknamed Ken Lay "Kenny Boy." Overall, Enron employees gave Bush some $600,000 in political donations. According to the Center for Public Integrity, this made Enron Bush’s top career donor, a distinction the company maintained until 2004. Shortly after Bush took office in 2001, Vice President Cheney met with Enron officials while he was developing the administration’s energy policies. Our guest, Greg Palast, examined the connections between Enron and the Bush administration in his documentary, Bush Family Fortunes.
GREG PALAST: Even before he takes the presidential oath, Bush forms a secret task force, including Enron’s Ken Lay to rewrite America’s environmental and energy laws.
CRAIG McDONALD: He put the very people who funded him in the room to devise a clean air policy. They wrote the policy. He enacted the policy and the policy was strictly voluntary, did nothing to clean up the air, yet he touted it as a major accomplishment.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Instead of the government telling utilities where and how to cut pollution, we will give them a firm deadline and let them find the most innovative ways to meet it.
CRAIG McDONALD: These same funders were sick and tired of trying to play by the environmental rules and regulations. George Bush gave them an environmental clean air policy that any corporation would lust after.
JIM HIGHTOWER: How proud we are to be the number one state in the country in air pollution.
CRAIG McDONALD: Ken Lay, got almost total complete energy deregulation out of George Bush.
JIM HIGHTOWER: What did the Bush administration do? It refused to impose price controls to put a cap on those utility prices, meaning a company like Enron could set its own prices to consumers.
CORPORATE EXECUTIVE: Show me the money! Show me the money!
CRAIG McDONALD: He was delivering a favor in a policy that the donors who put him in that office want.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Consumers in California were being stiffed, and Enron was raking in hundreds of millions of dollars during that period in corrupt profits. So that’s a pretty good payback.
GREG PALAST: But Enron squandered their California windfall in a series of spectacular frauds which imploded, leaving thousands jobless and pensioners bankrupt. Now, George tried to downplay his links with Enron’s Ken Lay and other corrupt bosses.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: By far, the vast majority of CEOs in America are good honorable, honest people. In the corporate world, sometimes things aren’t exactly black and white when it comes to accounting procedures, and the SEC’s job is to rev — is to look and is to determine whether or not, whether or not, whether or not the decision by the auditors was the appropriate decision.
JIM HIGHTOWER: Ken Lay, whom George W. fondly called "Kenny Boy," was the major campaign contributor to George W. Bush, and they exchanged Christmas cards with each other. Ken Lay was very personal, very close with the Bush family.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I do know that Mr. Lay came to the White House in — early in my administration along with, I think, twenty other business leaders to discuss the state of the economy. It was just kind of a general discussion. I have not met with him personally.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the BBC’s Bush Family Fortunes, produced by our guest and author today, Greg Palast, author of Armed Madhouse. Care to elaborate?
GREG PALAST: Well, yeah. I mean, you heard the traders saying that Ken Lay, being number one donor, was going to become Secretary of State. That’s not what Lay wanted. Lay had a bigger wish list.
AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of Energy.
GREG PALAST: Excuse me, Secretary of Energy. He wanted to name the electricity cops, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, so Ken Lay secretly gave Dick Cheney a list of three names. Now, you have to understand, Al Capone used to have to buy off the cops. Here’s Ken Lay trying to get them appointed. He said, "Here’s three good choices for chairman of the commission that’s supposed to regulate me." Right? That he already knew that he was being asked for the $9 billion back, right?
Anyway, George Bush gave him a real extraordinary Christmas gift. He appointed all three guys to the Energy Commission. So Lay appoints his own regulators, and he did this before in Texas, when George, when George Bush was Governor of Texas, when George Bush says he didn’t know Ken Lay, and I’ve got a letter in Armed Madhouse showing a note from Ken Lay saying, "Here’s the guy I want to be my regulator, the cop that’s supposed to be watching me," and sure enough, Governor George Bush appoints Ken Lay’s personal cop.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring back in Robert Bryce, author of Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego and the Death of Enron. You are in the state, you’re in Texas, where it all began, where the relationship between Ken Lay, Enron and the Bush family began. Can you talk more about this issue that is not very much addressed in the media, though they are covering the story, of course, of the verdict.
ROBERT BRYCE: Well, remember that the Enron and Ken Lay connection to the Bush family precedes George W. Bush. Ken Lay was a donor to the presidential campaign of George the first, George H.W. Bush, when he ran for president in 1980, and Lay was also involved in and had close ties in the Reagan administration when they deregulated the natural gas market. So, you know, this was not by any means any kind of a secret here in Texas. Enron was pushing deregulation in Texas, they were pushing deregulation in California, etc.
If I can just mention one thing in terms of California, you know, I take Mr. Palast’s point about all of these companies, you know, gaming the market in California. That’s all true, and they all certainly did. Many of them have paid fines, they haven’t faced criminal charges, which I think they should, but remember that was largely a product of the fact that the California legislature opened the market, and they did so in a shoddy manner that allowed it to be game. So I’m not excusing any of the activity here, but there’s enough blame to go around here, in terms of what happened in California, and some of that was due to simply poorly written laws that occurred in California.
Now, what happened, though, with regard to the Bush administration and Enron? Well, it’s clear, remember, it’s six years ago, six years and a month, when George W. Bush was at Enron Field at the opening day of Enron Field, watching a Houston Astros game in the box seats owned by Ken Lay. I mean, this is a relationship that’s long and deep.
Once Bush gets elected, what happens in early 2001, when the power market in California starts to — I mean, where the, you know, the price gouging is obvious, prices are skyrocketing, Ken Lay gets a personal meeting with Dick Cheney and briefs him on their goal, which was not to have the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission intervene in the California power market. When you look at the records of those meetings, you see that when Cheney comes out of the meeting, he then has an interview with the Los Angeles Times either the next day or following day, and he repeats virtually the very same talking points that Ken Lay handed to him, which were, "Don’t intervene. We believe in the free market. Let’s let the free market figure out what the price or proper price of power in California is."
Well, so, in fact, the FERC didn’t intervene. They stayed out of the market for another two months. Billions more were — of costs were imposed on California consumers. But then, what happened finally, the FERC intervened in June of 2001, imposed soft price caps, and the entire power market collapsed. Price sanity returned to the market, because the federal government showed that it was willing to intervene, and that was what that whole market had been waiting for for months was some kind of federal intervention. And that’s where I think the corruption has really occurred, clearly was that Lay got access to Cheney and Cheney and the Bush administration led the FERC or instructed the FERC not to intervene, and that cost California dearly.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Bryce, author of Pipe Dreams and Greg Palast, author of Armed Madhouse. Both men have followed Enron and the Bush dynasty for years. Robert Bryce talking to us from Texas, Greg Palast here with us in New York. We’re going to go to break, and when we come back, we’re going to play a clip of the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, talking about Enron and the Bushes, and what that has to do with this regime in Uzbekistan, and then a clip of Alex Gibney’s film, Smartest Guys in the Room. Yes, it’s about Enron.
AMY GOODMAN: Enron’s influence reached as far as Uzbekistan. In January, we interviewed the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray. He spoke about the relationship between President Bush and the Uzbek regime of President Karimov.
CRAIG MURRAY: It goes back to before George Bush became President. In 1997 or 1998, George Bush, as Governor of Texas, had a meeting with the Uzbek ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Safayev, which was actually organized and set up by Kenneth Lay of Enron. And if you go to my website, you can find a facsimile of Kenneth Lay’s letter to George Bush, telling him to meet Ambassador Safayev in order to conclude a billion-dollar gas deal between Uzbekistan and Enron. And that was the start of the Bush relationship with the Karimov regime.
Karimov is one of the most vicious dictators in the world, a man who is responsible for the death of thousands of people. Prisoners are boiled to death in Uzbek jails. And he was a guest in the White House in 2002. It’s very easy to find photos of George Bush shaking Karimov’s hand.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, that is the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, in our Democracy Now! studios. And for people who are listening on the radio, you can go to our website at democracynow.org to see the photographs of the leaders of Uzbekistan shaking the hands of President Bush. Greg Palast, your response?
GREG PALAST: You have to understand that Enron is an international conspiracy locked up very tightly with the Bush family. You have to understand that not only was a call made to the dictator of Uzbekistan, but Jeb Bush called up the finance minister of Argentina to fix a deal and said even though Enron was low bidder for the natural gas of Argentina, Jeb Bush called and said, you know, "My father has just been elected president of the free world."
AMY GOODMAN: This is before Jeb Bush was Florida governor?
GREG PALAST: Before he was governor. This is George’s brother. And what Jeb was saying is "My father would very much appreciate if you would give Enron the deal." And the finance minister was just floored. He thought that this was being muscled into giving away Argentina’s resources to some guy he’s never heard of: Ken Lay. This is Jeb Bush. Neil Bush then goes on the payroll of Enron to sell the Saudis water systems for Enron. You have to understand that literally the Bush family has been kind of an armed sales force for Enron, and an empowered sales force, sometimes on the payroll, sometimes just in office and the gimme is, of course, the huge political donations.
And that really hasn’t been touched in the U.S. papers, the huge international reach of Enron, including, by the way, Mr. Tony Blair, where I broke a story there about Enron’s influence with the Blair government, that huge amount of money was paid into the Labour Party to allow Enron to bust the rules to allow them to build power plants in England. I mean, Tony Blair had a lot to answer for, but that story was covered there.
AMY GOODMAN: I didn’t hear these questions asked last night in the news conference with Tony Blair and George Bush, who were having a kind of mini-summit in Washington, D.C.
GREG PALAST: Yes, very mini. Yeah, no, Tony Blair is also completely mobbed up with Enron. I mean, I pretended, I went undercover and was able to virtually buy Tony Blair’s Cabinet back in 1998. It was a big scandal. I won the equivalent of Britain’s Pulitzer Prize for it. It’s in the book. And basically I pretended to be an Enron representative, consultant, and the doors literally opened. I was invited right into 10 Downing Street. All I had do was say "Enron." It was like "abracadabra." But it was all about cutting secret private deals. And they said, "Well, you know, we just had your guys in, and we’ve already given them xyz. We’ve given them waivers on the power plants." And I was like —
AMY GOODMAN: Were you wired?
GREG PALAST: I was wired, yes. And unfortunately for Tony Blair, I was wired. And when he called me a liar on the floor of the House of Commons, we said, "Well, let’s listen to the audio tape." But, you know, that’s not done here in the U.S. I mean, at the same time that we were busting Enron over there, the U.S. press here was acting like Ken Lay, like especially writers like Thomas Friedman of the Times, like he was, you know, Elvis on a pogo stick. He was bringing the wonders of the free market to electricity, this guy who was basically leading — like I say, you have to understand it’s a mob. And one thing I am very discouraged at, reading the coverage, it’s all about symbol of an era, as if it’s gone, as if under George Bush that era is over. No, that era is beginning. Okay, they got rid of the guy who kicked it off. They had to. He went too far. But the whole gang is still operating. That’s one of the big evils.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to an excerpt of the documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. It’s based on the book by the same name by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. In this excerpt, Enron founder Ken Lay talks about the state of Enron to a room full of Enron employees. The date was October 22, 2001, a week after the Securities and Exchange Commission sent a letter to Enron asking for information on the company’s third quarter losses.
KEN LAY: As you can, of course, see the underlying fundamentals of our businesses are very strong, indeed the strongest they’ve ever been. But regrettably, that’s not what Wall Street is focusing on, and I doubt that’s what you’re focusing on. This inquiry will take a lot of time on the part of our accountants and lawyers and others, but it will finally put these issues to rest.
NARRATOR: At the very moment Ken Lay was talking to employees, only a few blocks away, Enron’s accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, had begun destroying its Enron files. On October 23, Andersen shredded more than one ton of paper.
KEN LAY: Despite the rumors, despite the speculation, the company is doing well, both financially and operationally.
SHERRON WATKINS: He was making all kinds of statements, reassuring employees, and not just employees, reassuring investors we have no accounting irregularities, the company is in the best shape it’s ever been in.
KEN LAY: From the standpoint of Enron stock, we’re going to bring it back. We’re going to bring it back. All right, we’re down to questions, and I’ve got a few up here. "I would like to know if you are on crack. If so, that would explain a lot. If not, you may want to start, because it’s going to be a long time before we trust you again."
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: It certainly wasn’t clear to anyone at Enron, much less anyone outside of Enron. It wasn’t really clear what was going on or what was going to happen.
KEN LAY: I know this is a lot — there’s a lot of speculation about Andy’s involvement. I and the board are also sure that Andy has operated in the most ethical and appropriate manner possible.
NARRATOR: The next day, Andy Fastow was fired, when the Enron board discovered that he had made more than $45 million from his LJM partnerships.
REP. JIM GREENWOOD: The question, Mr. Fastow, is how could you believe that your actions were in any way consistent with your fiduciary duties to Enron and its shareholders or with common sense notions of corporate ethics and propriety? How do you answer, sir?
ANDREW FASTOW: Mr. Chairman, on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer the questions, based on the protection afforded me under the United States Constitution.
SHERRON WATKINS: Andy, in many ways, I think he was set up as the fall guy. All of the Enron executives were saying, "There’s your man, Andy Fastow. He’s the crook. You know, he’s the one that stole from Enron, stole from LJM> He’s the one that cooked the books. Go after him."
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I’ve thought about this and thought about this, and it couldn’t have just been a few executives at Enron that made this happen. If you think of the banks involved, Chase, Morgan, Citibank, the billions in loans, Arthur Andersen. What about Vinson & Elkins, the lawyers that represented us? There had to have been complicity across the board, because it was all too easy.
AMY GOODMAN: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, an excerpt. It was produced and directed by Alex Gibney. Our guests are Robert Bryce, Pipe Dreams, and Greg Palast, Armed Madhouse. Greg, this is the point you were making about it being larger than Enron.
GREG PALAST: Yeah. I mean, basically the co-conspirators, the rest of the mob, was breaking out champagne yesterday, because they said, "We’re off the hook." This should have been the beginning of new indictments, and like I say, the only new indictment are the guys that went after Enron, the law firm that sued Enron for its shenanigans. Milberg Weiss was put up. It was clearly political prosecution to say "We’re going to go after the guys who went after Enron," and yet you heard the list. You had the law firm Vinson & Elkins, you had Arthur Andersen, you had a whole crew of characters who got off scot-free here.
And what’s even worse is that the game continues. See, the last Ken Lay — and this is important to understand — was a guy named Sam Insull. In 1930, all those companies called Edison were actually started by Sam, who was the Ken Lay of his time, watered the stock, played games with the books, overcharged customers. F.D.R. came into office, had the guy busted, but even more, he says, "I’m not just going after the criminal. I’m going after the crime." And F.D.R. changed the law to say we’re going to prohibit price gouging by these power pirates. We are going to prohibit them from flickering the light switches. They keep those lights on. No more freezing Grandma Millie, okay? And third — this is the big one — the law under Franklin Roosevelt said you cannot make political donations if you’re a big power company.
Now, Ken Lay slithered around that to give the big bucks to the Bush family. I mean, the law says they can’t do that, you have to understand. He was the number one giver, when the law says you can’t give. And in 2005, Bush made it official by repealing the F.D.R. Public Utility Holding Company Act, which barred these contributions by power companies to politicians. In other words, basically they just opened up the game, they threw Lay and Skilling to the dogs, to the crowd, and the game continues on.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Bryce, you talk extensively about the similarities between the Bush administration and Enron.
ROBERT BRYCE: Sure. Let me make one point I think that we’ve missed here. It’s not just the Bush administration, as well. I mean, Congress had a hand in allowing Enron to do what it did. Let’s look at the case of Phil Gramm. Phil Gramm was the one who carried legislation that allowed Enron to do a lot of the things it did and avoid federal oversight at the same time that his wife, Wendy, was on Enron’s board.
AMY GOODMAN: Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator.
ROBERT BRYCE: Former senator from Texas. So Enron had tremendous power in Congress, as well, that allowed it to operate with a free hand in the energy trading business and to operate really as an unregulated commodities broker, an unregulated commodities exchange.
AMY GOODMAN: Just one second, because I spoke over you. I spoke over you. The former Texas senator Phil Gramm’s wife, Wendy, say again her role.
ROBERT BRYCE: She was on the board at Enron at the same time that Gramm was in the Senate sponsoring legislation that benefited Enron. Not only did Gramm not recuse himself, he sponsored legislation that effectively allowed Enron to operate as an unregulated commodities exchange. So, I mean, there’s plenty of — Enron’s money corrupted a lot of elements of government, and it wasn’t just the Bush administration. I’m not saying that to excuse the Bush administration, because, I mean, when you look at Enron and you look at the Bush administration, you see the similarities. Both operated with this clear idea that they were going to change the world, that the world was going to follow their new business model and that that was going to change the world forever.
What else? Well, they launched brutal attacks on anybody who doubted any of their programs. They had huge surges in debt that they covered up with creative accounting. We see that now with the Bush administration, creating some of the largest deficits in American history of any presidency in American history, and also just this idea that they were on a religious mission. This was — their business model was going to change the world. No one could doubt them. Anyone who did was immediately cast aside. And in a word, it’s the same commodity, the same trait that brought down Enron is the defining trait of the Bush administration, and that’s hubris. It’s the Greeks’ fatal flaw. And I think that that clearly came home to roost with Lay and Skilling, and I think eventually it’s going to come home to roost with the Bush administration.
AMY GOODMAN: Greg Palast.
GREG PALAST: Well, what you have here is economic political gangsterism, which has now seized control of the government. You can’t look at it any other way. We have a system in which basically, instead of — that basically, just like the mob, is able the rewrite the laws, pick the judges. They have decriminalized what we call deregulation, Ken lay’s great gift to America, deregulation of industry. And it’s not just electricity, okay, it’s deregulation of industry. His great gift is really decriminalization of price gouging, of monopoly abuse, of economic abuse. These guys still have California by the light bulbs, and as deregulation disease is spreading across the nation, still 24 states have deregulated their power markets. The march continues on.
And you have to understand the other problems that have occurred here. It used to be that these guys had to keep the lights on and keep track of the money that they took from you to keep your lights on. Well, that game is over now. We had a blackout, if you remember, a couple years ago, and that was because these companies had literally sucked the cash out of these firms and fired all their workers to keep the money that you pay to keep your lights on. And Bush’s response and Dick Cheney’s response and Congress’s response was further deregulation; that is, further decriminalization of sucking the money and lifeblood out of these power companies. So, this is just — you have to understand, is that basically what we’ve done is we’ve decriminalized the rip-off of the consumer.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, in the last few seconds we have, Robert Bryce, author of Pipe Dreams, the workers, what do they gain by all of this?
ROBERT BRYCE: Well, the workers at Enron gain nothing. I mean, you know, they gained a little bit of satisfaction, but I know a lot of these people who are former Enron employees, some of them I know still haven’t been able to find work after losing not only their jobs, their life savings, and in many cases their reputations. Just having worked at Enron became a blot on their resume. So I think in Houston and here in Texas, I think there’s a lot of satisfaction to see Lay and Skilling convicted. But if I can just add one other thing, this game isn’t over yet. There’s certain to be an appeal, and there’s a possibility of an overturn here, because of the judge’s jury instructions, which were fairly open-ended and were similar to the instructions given in the Arthur Andersen trial, which was then overturned at the Supreme Court, so while I’m pleased —
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Robert Bryce. We’re going to have to leave it there. Robert Bryce, author of Pipe Dreams, Greg Palast, author of Armed Madhouse. Skilling and Lay will be sentenced on September 11th.