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January 5, 2005

The WSJ on the case against Ken Lay

This John R. Emshwiller and Rebecca Smith Wall Street Journal ($) article provides an overview of the Justice Department's criminal case against former Enron chairman and CEO, Ken Lay.

Mr. Emshwiller and Ms. Smith have been covering the Enron scandal from the beginning and have written a book on the subject -- 24 Days: How Two Wall Street Journal Reporters Uncovered the Lies that Destroyed Faith in Corporate America (HarperBusiness 2003) -- that certainly would prompt one to question their objectivity in writing about the issues covered in the article. As noted several times in this blog, the best book on the Enron affair to date has been the one written by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron (Portfolio 2003). So, if you want to read just one book on the Enron scandal, read the latter.

Nevertheless, Mr. Emshwiller and Ms. Smith at least acknowledge in the article that the government's case against Mr. Lay is difficult because it largely relies on public statements that he made in support of Enron as the company was spiraling downward during the latter stages of 2001. What you will not find in the article is any meaningful analysis of the policy implications of the government prosecuting a businessman for the "crime" of making public statements about a troubled company that were clearly intended to try and save the company for the benefit of its shareholders and employees. Apparently, the government prefers that Mr. Lay not have said anything and ensured that Enron went down in flames?

This previous blog post provides a more objective analysis of the policy implications of the government's case against Mr. Lay. The demise of Enron effectively marked the end of a speculative stock market bubble that was the result of many bad decisions by businesspersons and investors alike. There was even criminal behavior involved in some instances. However, to paint the entire management team involved in a business failure such as Enron as criminals is akin to using a sledgehammer where surgical precision is needed. The results of such an approach are hopelessly arbitrary and capricious, as we have already seen with cases such as those involving Jamie Olis , Sheila Kahanek, and Global Crossing, Ltd. Indeed, such questionable prosecutions are how someone such as Mr. Olis ends up serving a longer prison sentence than a true business criminal such as Martin Frankel.

Mr. Emshwiller and Ms. Smith do not have much interest in exploring this angle of the Enron case. That's a shame, because it may just be the most important policy issue arising from the scandal.

Posted by Tom at January 5, 2005 5:51 AM |

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