Ken Lay's very timely departure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 July, 2006, 12:00am

Death is never a laughing matter. But in the case of Ken Lay, the notorious fraudster and white-collar thief who oversaw the shocking collapse of the Enron empire, America is prepared to make an exception.

Just a day after Lay died of a heart attack while awaiting sentence for his part in the disgraceful affair that robbed thousands of people of their jobs and life savings, the New York Post was keen to make its feelings known.

Alongside pictures of the former Enron chief and a wooden casket, on the newspaper's front page, ran the words: 'Before they put cheato Lay's coffin in the grave, check he's in it!' Given the maelstrom of conspiracy theories swirling on the Web last week that Lay's death was faked, the headline was only partly tongue-in-cheek.

For many of Enron's victims, Lay's death, at 64, is the ultimate final justice. Denied the chance of ever seeing a return on their investments of time or money that created the corporate behemoth, the stockholders, employees and pensioners who lost everything in its subsequent bankruptcy at least have the satisfaction of knowing that the crook at the top of the woodpile would gain nothing.

Others feel they have been robbed of that justice they so desperately sought. Along with their empty pockets is the hollow knowledge that the man who turned their lives upside down escaped spending his twilight years locked up in a cell.

'It's kind of mixed emotions for many people,' said Richard Mason, a professor specialising in business ethics at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business, Dallas, Texas, and an expert on the Enron bankruptcy.

'Ken Lay's death leaves this entire episode unfinished, and Lay, for right or wrong, is so much the symbol of the things that went wrong. Some people feel they have been cheated, and they don't get to feel final closure.'

In many ways, Lay was the epitome of the self-made man so beloved by corporate America. Born to a poor Baptist family in Missouri, he earned pocket money delivering newspapers and cutting lawns before earning a degree in economics at the University of Missouri.

After several years as a company executive, he merged two gas pipeline companies from Texas and Nebraska to form Enron in 1985 and, with chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, was the driving force as it cashed in on the deregulation of the gas and electricity industries in the US and grew quickly into one of the world's largest energy conglomerates.

Enron then branched into the financial marketplace. At its 2000 peak, annual revenue topped US$100 billion, the Houston-based company employed 21,000 people worldwide and its top executives lived the good life.

The profits, though, were an illusion, hidden in a web of financial trickery that allowed Enron to project an outward appearance of perfect health. Lay saw the writing on the wall and quietly dumped hundreds of millions of dollars of his own stock, all the while persuading his workers to keep buying more. 'They knew deep down that it couldn't keep going but it was a great ride. They had a great regard for Ken Lay as a person and that's why they felt betrayed. They liked him, and they liked his style,' Dr Mason said.

Lay, meanwhile, leaves behind the perfect parting gift to his wife, Linda, five children and 12 grandchildren. His conviction in May on 10 counts of securities and wire fraud is set to be quashed under a federal law that allows for the vacation of a guilty verdict against any defendant who does not live long enough to exhaust his appeal options.

'By dying before the final sentence, he won't go in the record books as a felon,' Dr Mason said. 'His family gets life insurance and gets to keep a substantial amount of money, by my standards, not necessarily theirs, that they wouldn't have [if the conviction stood]. Other than the loss of his life, he leaves in the best of circumstances.'

Even so, the Enron debate does not die with Ken Lay, and is unlikely to fade after Skilling is sentenced for his role on October 23, assuming his own appeal is unsuccessful.

Many of the unanswered questions surround Lay's relationship with President George W. Bush, who famously coined his nickname 'Kenny Boy'. Although personal letters appear to prove the two were good friends when Bush was Texas governor from 1995 to 2000, the president quickly distanced himself after the scandal broke.

'The president has described Ken Lay as an acquaintance, and many of the president's acquaintances have passed on during his time in office,' said White House press secretary Tony Snow, though Mr Bush was slightly warmer in an interview later last week in which he described Lay as 'a good guy' and 'generous person' who betrayed shareholders' trust.

Dr Mason believes the president could have other reasons for casting his old friend adrift.

'My more suspicious side looks to all these issues about how energy policy was set in the first year [of Bush's presidency], before 9/11 and the Enron collapse,' he said, pointing to rumours that the advisers were predominantly Enron people.

'Bush distanced himself not only from the scandal, which is good politics, but also if he showed closeness it might draw attention to energy issues and other problems in the administration.'

Lay might have escaped that justice, but his name will remain inextricably linked to the biggest corporate scandal in US history.