Enron and the R's

Not every scene in Mel Brooks’ classic comedy Blazing Saddles has stood the test of time, but there is one in particular which has never seemed funnier than it does right now. Out on the frontier somewhere, Governor Le Petomane (Brooks) and his cronies promised the moon to some powerful railroad barons, but events had turned against them, and it was starting to look like the whole project was going to come apart. As Lamar’s chief of staff fulminated about just how deep they were in with their corporate benefactor, the governor had a moment of clarity: “We’ve got to save our phoney-baloney jobs!” he exclaimed.

Here in Texas, it’s not hard to imagine a version of this scene playing out in the executive offices of each of our Republican statewide elected officials, as they listen to the news about Enron’s collapse and ponder what to do with all that campaign cash they have accepted from the former Texas kingmaker. Front and center has been Governor Rick Perry, who has accepted $227,075 from the company and its officials in his career, according to records compiled by Texans for Public Justice. He has said he does not intend to return the money, despite the fact that Max Yzaguirre, Perry’s choice to head the Public Utility Commission, has become the first political casualty of the meltdown. Yzaguirre resigned following revelations that he had failed to disclose his prior connection to Enron subsidiaries in Mexico and elsewhere, and that Perry had received a $25,000 check from Ken Lay himself the day after making the appointment. The reason we needed a new PUC head in the first place, you’ll recall, is that Bush had summoned the former Texas chief, Pat Wood, to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commis-sion, after Lay objected to the intransigence of the sitting chair.

Who else owes their phoney-baloney job to Ken Lay, who may very well wind up under indictment in the next few months? Texas Attorney General John Cornyn took $193,000 in campaign cash from Lay and Enron. He says he won’t be giving it back, although he has agreed to recuse himself from the state’s investigation into the collapse. That’s fine, but who in Texas will be representing the public’s interest in this mess? The Florida attorney general has already issued subpoenas in his suit to recover millions lost by the state’s employee pension fund, which, like hundreds of funds across the country, had considerable investments in Enron. But Texas funds lost a bundle, too: a combined $59.7 million, the Austin-American Statesman reported. At press time, the A.G.’s office had yet to announce any specific plan of attack.

Enron also went under owing over a million to the General Land Office for natural gas the company purchased, and they undoubtedly owe thousands in taxes to the State of Texas. Who will go after that money? Carole Keeton Rylander, the state comptroller, has taken $71,000 from the company over the years. In 1995, she was revealed to have accepted $5,000 from an Enron lobbyist shortly after making a very favorable tax ruling for the company. And what if this all ends up before the Texas Supreme Court? According to Texans for Public Justice, justices of the court have taken over $130,000 from the company since 1993, making Enron the court’s largest corporate donor. Not surprisingly, the company has had better than average luck before the court. Bush’s nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is in serious danger of being derailed because of Enron’s past patronage. It’s going to take more than a new sheriff to get out of this one. —NB

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Published at 12:00 am CST