‘A lie repeated a hundred times becomes the truth’. So said Mao Zedong, or Joseph Goebbels, depending upon your political or other persuasion. As the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Enron approaches, it would be difficult to escape the conclusion that the great lie that is the mainstream narrative on Enron’s collapse will indeed become the unassailable truth – Enron was a giant house of cards from top to bottom, the edifice held together only by a spider’s web of deceit and accounting fraud. The company was corrupt from boardroom to basement.
In the intervening ten years, much has changed, but the narrative has not. Many of Enron’s executives were sent to prison for their ‘wrongdoing’. Of those, several suffered more than one trial. Some eventually had their convictions overturned on appeal. One man remains behind bars to this day; Former CEO Jeff Skilling’s 24 years sentence dwarfed that handed out to any other executive, and he protests his innocence to this day from inside his prison in Colorado.
Enron had many victims. A lot of people lost their livelihoods, and much of their retirement provision. They would be right to feel angry and upset at the company’s demise. That there was fraud at Enron was undoubted, but that is a very different thing from saying that the entire company was rotten, or that the CEO should be criminally liable because his company failed.
What I find particularly sad though is that long after the statute of limitations has passed on criminal charges, few if any of the former executives who were threatened with indictment by the Enron Task Force if they dared to testify for the defence in an Enron trial will come out and tell what really happened. It is possible that a number of these guys are more than happy to talk about their experiences privately, but will never put their head above the public parapet because they know what it feels like to have the 400 pound gorilla that is the US Justice Department breathe down their necks. In that sense, who can possibly blame them.
The sadness, though, is that the conspiracy of silence ensures that the lie becomes the truth, and it may yet condemn Jeff Skilling, who is shortly to file a motion alleging gross prosecutorial misconduct, to many more years in prison. I’ve never met Jeff Skilling, but my sense is that if you cut him, he would have bled Enron. He and his company made some bad business decisions. That does not of itself make him a criminal.
Enron was a fantastic company whose ruin brought low an entire community. It surely deserves better than the current epitaph of widespread fraud and corruption. An accepted narrative can be difficult to shift, even when totally wrong. This is all very easy for me to say, of course, from the comfort of my home five thousand miles away. I’ve done my time now, but I have a lot of unfinished business with the UK Government and our hideous extradition laws which would shame a banana republic. We are few, but we are making progress, and there is now definitely light at the end of the tunnel with respect to law change.
The last ten years, including my time in ten different prisons on two continents, have taught me a lot about myself, and some of it wasn’t very pleasant. But if there’s one thing I’m sure about, it’s that just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do something. Cara Ellison gets this. Tom Kirkendall at the Houston’s Clear Thinkers blog gets this. I am sure that privately there are many who would like to see Jeff Skilling out of prison right now, because his conviction was an affront to American justice. It’s not an impossible dream, but right now he surely needs people to fight his corner; people who could make a difference. People who could finally lift the lid on the McCarthyist witch-hunt that was the Enron Task Force. The intimidation of witnesses. The withholding of exculpatory evidence. The mob prosecution tactics that saw minnows being pressured to testify falsely against their superiors, and individuals threatened with lifetimes in prison if they didn’t agree to plead guilty.
My fervent hope is that the next few years may see the other side of the Enron story finally revealed, so that at least independent observers can make up their own minds on a fully informed basis, instead of being
force-fed a diet of populist propaganda by the mainstream media. I have enormously fond memories of my time in Houston, the circumstances of my being there notwithstanding. It’s a great City that deserves more than
constantly being linked with a company that is a by-word for fraud and corruption.