Grant executives immunity

Congressional hearings into Enron’s devastating collapse will, if they continue on their current track, yield little of any real value, as the line of stone-faced executives parading before Congress and invoking their Fifth Amendment rights seems to show. A few former leaders of the defunct corporation might face some soft time for their actions, but if that is all that comes from this debacle, justice could easily be subverted. Congress should grant Enron executives immunity so the American public can honestly find out the full scope of what went wrong and, more important, how it went wrong.

Enron was one of the most politically active corporations in the nation. Beyond their voluminous list campaign contributions, former CEO Kenneth Lay and other top executives met with governors, congressional leaders and the president and vice president several times, usually giving advice or, some have argued, even consent to energy policies and government appointees. President George W. Bush’s chief economic adviser is a former adviser for Enron. Secretary of the Army Timothy White used to be vice chairman of Enron Energy. The new head of the Republican Party, Marc Racicot, was a lobbyist for Enron, and White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove once had approximately $250,000 invested in the company’s stock. And that leaves out the ancillary things, such as Lay’s fervent and longtime support of Bush, which extended so far that Lay reportedly let Bush use Enron’s company jet to get to campaign stops during the 2000 election.

Perhaps most disturbing is Lay’s role in the formulation of the California deregulation policy. The deregulation led to last summer’s blackouts – energy shortages that turned into an enormous opportunity for the energy-trading corporation. Lay was on the energy task force set up during the first Bush administration, which included Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney is currently engaged in a standoff with the General Accounting Office over divulging records of his meetings with energy executives that might have included Enron employees.

So far, nothing that has come to light suggests the administration did anything illegal. But the connection between Enron and most of the rest of our government is too far-reaching to remain unexplored.

Granting congressional immunity to former executives might ruin any criminal case against them – as happened during the Iran-Contra scandal – but confirming or disproving governmental wrongdoing is far more important. Politically, it would be tough to do; offering immunity to these people might be perceived as doing a campaign contributor a favor. In that case, we find it hard to sympathize now that runaway campaign contributions are doing a disservice to Congress after hurting the rest of the country for so long.

Members of Congress must bite the bullet, appoint a special prosecutor soon and give him or her the tool of offering immunity. The truth requires no less, and the American people certainly deserve no less.