Thursday, March 17, 2005

Rich…And Infamous

As Frank Rich notes, just when Bush is promoting privatizing Social Security via Wall Street, up pops the poster boy for Ponzi schemes with retirement accounts, Ken Lay.

His trial is still months away, but there he was last Sunday on “60 Minutes,” saying he knew nothin’ ’bout nothin’ that went down at Enron. This week he is heading toward the best-seller list, as an involuntary star of “Conspiracy of Fools,” the New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald’s epic account of the multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme anointed America’s “most innovative company” (six years in a row by Fortune magazine). Coming soon, the feature film: Alex Gibney’s “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” a documentary seen at Sundance, goes into national release next month. As long as you’re not among those whose 401(k)’s and pensions were wiped out, it’s morbidly entertaining. In one surreal high point, Mr. Lay likens investigations of Enron to terrorist attacks on America. For farce, there’s the sight of a beaming Alan Greenspan as he accepts the “Enron Award for Distinguished Public Service” only days after Enron has confessed to filing five years of bogus financial reports. Then again, given the implicit quid pro quo in this smarmy tableau, maybe that’s the Enron drama’s answer to a sex scene.


Americans do have short memories, but it’s the administration’s bad luck that not just Kenny Boy but a whole brigade of bubble plutocrats have lately been yanked back into the spotlight by their legal travails: WorldCom’s Bernard J. Ebbers, Tyco’s L. Dennis Kozlowski, HealthSouth’s Richard M. Scrushy, Global Crossing’s Gary Winnick. No one is glad to see them. The public knows that the economy has not fully mended, and that there remain different economic rules for insiders than for the panelists drafted for the presidential Social Security roadshow. The new bankruptcy bill embraced this month by Republicans and Democrats alike throws Americans paying usurious credit-card interest to the wolves even as wealthy debtors remain protected.


It’s against this backdrop that the returning Mr. Lay – completely unrepentant, still purporting on “60 Minutes” that he’s an innocent victim of others – could be the Democrats’ new best friend. A Texas tycoon who helped create the political career of George W. Bush only to be discarded when scandal struck has re-emerged at just the precise moment when he might do his old buddy the most harm.

One thing that’s always amazed me is that the richer some people become, the dumber they get and more prone to commit fraud. Speaking for myself, I’d be happy to make enough money to the point where I’m pleasantly dense and not under indictment.