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Profile: Kenneth Lay

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Kenneth Lay was a participant or observer in the following events:

Enron’s $3 billion Dabhol, India power plant runs into trouble in 1995 when the Indian government temporarily cancels an agreement. The plant is projected to get its energy from the proposed Afghan pipeline and deliver it to the Indian government. Enron leader Ken Lay travels to India with Commerce Secretary Ron Brown the same year, and heavy lobbying by US officials continue in subsequent years. By summer 2001, the National Security Council leads a “Dabhol Working Group” with officials from various cabinet agencies to get the plant completed and functioning. US pressure on India intensifies until shortly before Enron files for bankruptcy in December 2001. US officials later claim their lobbying merely supported the $640 million of US government investment in the plant. But critics say the plant received unusually strong support under both the Clinton and Bush administrations. (Burger 1/18/2002; Milbank and Blustein 1/19/2002)

Two of the first people to meet with the newly inaugurated President Bush are Enron CEO Kenneth Lay and Enron vice president Robert Shapiro. Lay and Shapiro are close political allies of Bush and Vice President Cheney. Lay and his Enron executives were not only the largest campaign donors for the Bush-Cheney presidential effort, but are Bush’s largest lifetime political backers, having financed Bush’s two campaigns for governor of Texas to the tune of some $775,000. Enron sank $1.2 million into the various 2000 Republican political campaigns, with the lion’s share of those donations going to the Bush-Cheney campaign. Enron provided more tangible support than just money; during the contentious December 2000 recount debacle in Florida, Enron (and Halliburton) provided corporate jets that shuttled Bush-Cheney lawyers and personnel around Florida and Washington. The early meetings with Bush are matched by meetings between Cheney, Lay, Shapiro, and at least four other Enron executives. (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 6-7)

Exxon logo.Exxon logo. [Source: Goodlogo (.com)]One of the first officials to meet with Vice President Cheney’s energy task force (the National Energy Policy Development Group—see May 16, 2001) is James Rouse, the vice president of ExxonMobil and a large financial donor to the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign. Several days later, Kenneth Lay, the CEO of Enron, meets with the group. It will not be his last meeting (see April 17, 2001 and After). The names of the various officials, executives, lobbyists, and representatives who meet with the task force will not be released until 2007 (see July 18, 2007). (Abramowitz and Mufson 7/18/2007)

Vice President Cheney is holding a series of secret energy task force meetings to determine the Bush administration’s future energy policy. Starting at this time, Enron leader Ken Lay and other Enron officials take part in a least half a dozen of these secret meetings. After one such meeting, Cheney’s energy task force changes a draft energy proposal to include a provision boosting oil and natural gas production in India. The amendment is so narrow that it apparently is targeted to only help Enron’s troubled Dabhol power plant in India. (Milbank and Blustein 1/19/2002)

Vice President Cheney meets with Enron CEO Kenneth Lay as part of Cheney’s secretive energy task force (the National Energy Policy Development Group—see May 16, 2001). Though Cheney may not know it, Enron is on the verge of collapse, with liabilities far outweighing assets and heavily doctored earnings statements. Enron’s only income generation comes from the unregulated energy markets in California and other Western states (see January 23, 2001). Enron traders are gouging the California markets at an unprecedented pace; as authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein later write, Enron is “taking power plants off-line to create shortages, booking transmission lines for current that never move[s], and shuttling electricity back and forth across state lines to circumvent price controls,” among a plethora of other illegal market manipulations.
Ignoring California's Energy Crisis - Unable to make a profit between buying Enron’s energy at staggering prices and then selling it at regulated rates, one of California’s two largest utility companies has filed for bankruptcy and the other has accepted a government bailout. California is in a calamitous energy crisis. Governor Gray Davis is pleading for rate caps that would help both utility companies and consumers. But price caps are the last thing Lay wants. Once in Cheney’s office, Lay gives Cheney a three-page memo outlining Enron’s recommendations for the administration’s national energy policy Cheney’s group is developing. Prominently featured in the memo is the following recommendation: “The administration should reject any attempt to deregulate wholesale power markets by adopting price caps.” Almost every recommendation in the Lay memo will find its way into the energy task force’s final report. Cheney may not know that Enron is in such dire financial straits, but he does know that energy prices in California have gone from $30 to $300 per megawatthour, with periodic jumps to as high as $1,500. He also knows that Enron’s profits in California, along with other power producers, have gone up 400% to 600%.
Price Caps in Spite of Lay, Cheney - Lay does not get his way; the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will override Cheney’s arguments and impose price caps on energy traders working in California. The state’s energy prices are brought under control, Enron’s trading schemes—luridly given such sobriquets as “Death Star,” “Fat Boy,” and “Get Shorty”—are brought to an end, and Enron collapses six months later (see December 2, 2001). Cheney will have a measure of revenge by forcing one of Lay’s adversaries on FERC, Curtis Hebert, out of his position (see August 14, 2001).
Avoiding Scrutiny and Oversight - This meeting and others are cleverly designed to avoid legal government oversight. According to the Federal Advisory Committees Act (FACA), the energy task force should be subject to public accountability because private parties—in this case, oil and gas industry executives and lobbyists—are helping shape government policy. Cheney’s legal counsel, David Addington, devises a simple scheme to avoid oversight. When a group of corporate lobbyists come together to create policy, a government official is present. Suddenly, FACA does not apply, and the task force need not provide any information whatsoever to the public. Dubose and Bernstein will later write: “It was bold as [artist] Rene Magritte’s near-photographic representation of a pipe over the inscription ceci n’est pas une pipe—‘this is not a pipe.’ Fifteen oil industry lobbyists meet in the Executive Office Building and one midlevel bureaucrat from the Department of Energy steps into the room—and voila, ceci n’est pas une foule de lobbyists. Because one government employee sat in with every group of lobbyists, a committee of outside advisers was not a committee of outside advisers.” Between Addington’s bureaucratic end-around and Cheney’s chairmanship of the working group giving the entire business the cloak of executive privilege, little information gets out of the group. “The whole thing was designed so that the presence of a government employee at a meeting could keep the Congress out,” a Congressional staff lawyer later says. It also keeps the press at bay. (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 3-4, 10)

George Skelton, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, gets an unexpected call asking if he wants to interview Vice President Cheney. Skelton thinks the call might be to lay some groundwork for the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. But Cheney wants to talk energy. Skelton is happy to oblige: energy prices are out of control in California. Cheney doesn’t just want to talk energy, though, he wants to talk about how bad an idea price caps are (see April 17, 2001 and After). “Price caps provide short-term relief for politicians,” Cheney says, in an oblique swipe at California’s Democratic governor, Gray Davis. He continues, “But they do nothing to deal with the basic, fundamental problem.” Skelton asks if the administration will support temporary price caps to get California through the immediate crisis period, and Cheney replies: “Six months? Six years? Once politicians can no longer resist the temptation to go with price caps, they usually are unable to muster the courage to end them.… I don’t see that as a possibility.” Cheney goes on: “Frankly, California is looked on by many folks as a classic example of the kinds of problems that arise when you do use price caps.” What Skelton does not know is that Cheney is echoing the recommendations of Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, whose company is primarily responsible for the California energy crisis. (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 4-5)

National Energy Policy report.National Energy Policy report. [Source: Climate Change Technology Program]Vice President Cheney’s National Energy Policy Development Group releases its energy plan. The plan, titled Reliable, Affordable, and Environmentally Sound Energy for America’s Future, warns that the quantity of oil imported per day will need to rise more than fifty percent to 16.7 million barrels by 2020. “A significant disruption in world oil supplies could adversely affect our economy and our ability to promote key foreign and economic policy objectives, regardless of the level of US dependence on oil imports,” the report explains. To meet the US’s rising demand for oil, the plan calls for expanded oil and gas drilling on public land and the easing of regulatory barriers to building nuclear power plants. (US President 5/16/2001, pp. 8.5 pdf file; Associated Press 12/9/2002; Macalister et al. 1/23/2003)
Emphasis on Foreign Oil - The report places substantial emphasis on oil from the Persian Gulf region. Its chapter on “strengthening global alliances” states: “By any estimation, Middle East oil producers will remain central to world oil security. The Gulf will be a primary focus of US international energy policy.” (US President 5/16/2001, pp. 8.5 pdf file) But it also suggests that the US cannot depend exclusively on traditional sources of supply to provide the growing amount of oil that it needs and will have to obtain substantial supplies from new sources, such as the Caspian states, Russia, Africa, and the Atlantic Basin. Additionally, it notes that the US cannot rely on market forces alone to gain access to these added supplies, but will also require a significant effort on the part of government officials to overcome foreign resistance to the outward reach of American energy companies. (Klare 4/30/2002)
Revamping of Clean Air Act - The plan also calls for a clarification of the New Source Review section of the Clean Air Act, which requires energy companies to install state-of-the-art emission control technology whenever it makes major modifications to its plants. The administration’s energy plan gives the Environmental Protection Agency 90 days to review NSR and determine whether it is discouraging companies from constructing or expanding power plants and refineries. It also instructs the attorney general to review current NSR litigation efforts against utility companies to determine whether those efforts are contributing to the country’s energy problems. “The outcome could determine whether the government drops some cases, approaches others more leniently, or even renegotiates settlements already reached,” the New York Times reports. (US President 5/16/2001, pp. 8.5 pdf file; Jehl 5/18/2001)
Dodging the EPA - The representative of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the task force had blocked the recommendation of a technique called “hydraulic fracturing.” Sometimes called “fracking,” the technique, used to extract natural gas from the earth, often contaminates aquifers used for drinking water and irrigation. The recommendation was removed to placate the EPA official, then quietly reinserted into the final draft. Halliburton, Cheney’s former firm, is the US leader in the use of hydraulic fracturing. (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 18)
Cheney Stayed Largely behind the Scenes - Much of the task force’s work was done by a six-member staff, led by executive director Andrew Lundquist, a former aide to senators Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Frank Murkowski (R-AK). Lundquist served as the Bush-Cheney campaign’s energy expert, earning the nickname “Light Bulb” from the president. Lundquist will leave the Bush administration and become a lobbyist for such firms as British Petroleum, Duke Energy, and the American Petroleum Institute. Much of the report is shaped by Lundquist and his colleagues, who in turn relied heavily on energy company executives and their lobbyists. For himself, Cheney did not meet openly with most of the participants, remaining largely behind the scenes. He did meet with Enron executive Kenneth Lay (see April 17, 2001 and After), with officials from Sandia National Laboratories to discuss their economic models of the energy industry, with energy industry consultants, and with selected Congressmen. Cheney also held meetings with oil executives such as British Petroleum’s John Browne that are not listed on the task force’s calendar. (Abramowitz and Mufson 7/18/2007)
Controversial Meetings with Energy Executives - Both prior to and after the publication of this report, Cheney and other Task Force officials meet with executives from Enron and other energy companies, including one meeting a month and a half before Enron declares bankruptcy in December 2001 (see After January 20, 2001), Mid-February, 2001, March 21, 2001, March 22, 2001, April 12, 2001, and April 17, 2001). Two separate lawsuits are later filed to reveal details of how the government’s energy policy was formed and whether Enron or other players may have influenced it, but the courts will eventually allow the Bush administration to keep the documents secret (see May 10, 2005). (Associated Press 12/9/2002)

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) calls for the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs to hold hearings on a possible improper relationship between Enron and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Her call for an investigation is prompted by media reports of Enron CEO Kenneth Lay pressuring FERC chairman Curtis Hebert to deregulate the energy industry in ways favorable to Enron (see August 14, 2001). Feinstein writes to Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), the ranking member of the committee, “Despite evidence of manipulation and price gouging in both the electricity and natural gas markets in California and the West, and a finding by FERC last November of ‘unjust and unreasonable’ rates, the commission has failed to take the actions necessary to bring reliability and stability to the marketplace… [I]t is clear that the citizens of the United States, especially the people of California, who are suffering from FERC’s failure to do its job, deserve an investigation and full public hearing into what happened. FERC is a $175 million a year agency charged with regulating the energy industry, and it would be unconscionable if any of the nation’s electricity traders or generators were in a position to be able to determine who chairs or becomes a member of the commission.” Lay is accused of forcing Hebert from his position in favor of another, more Enron-friendly chairman, Pat Wood. Feinstein adds, “Since FERC has refused to fulfill its legally mandated function under the Federal Power Act to restore ‘just and reasonable’ electricity rates, we need to ask whether undue influence by the companies that FERC regulates has resulted in its failure to act… In California, the total cost of electricity in 1999 was $7 billion. This climbed to $28 billion in 2000 and is predicted to reach $70 billion this year. At the same time, with FERC refusing to act, power generators and marketers have made record profits. The people of our nation deserve a full investigation.” (US Senate 5/25/2001)

Curtis Hebert of the FERC.Curtis Hebert of the FERC. [Source: PBS]Curtis Hebert is replaced by Pat Wood as the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Hebert announced his resignation on August 6. (US Department of Energy 12/2001) Hebert, a Clinton appointee who nevertheless is a conservative Republican, an ally of Senator Trent Lott (R-MS), and quite friendly towards the energy corporations, had been named to the FERC shortly before Clinton left office; Bush named him to chair the commission in January 2001. (Parry 5/26/2006)
Replaced at Enron Request - Hebert is apparently replaced at the request of Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, who did not find Hebert responsive enough in doing Enron’s bidding. Hebert had just taken the position of FERC chairman in January when he received a phone call from Lay, in which Lay pressured him to back a faster pace in opening up access to the US electricity transmission grid to Enron and other corporations. (Lay later admits making the call, but will say that keeping or firing Hebert is the president’s decision, not his.) When Hebert did not move fast enough for Lay, he is replaced by Pat Wood, a close friend of both Lay and President Bush. (Borger 5/26/2001; Scheer 12/11/2001) Lay apparently threatened Hebert with the loss of his job if he didn’t cooperate with Enron’s request for a more pro-Enron regulatory posture. (CNN 1/14/2002)
Opposed Enron Consolidation Plan - Hebert was leery of Enron’s plan to force consolidation of the various state utilities into four huge regional transmission organizations (RTOs), a plan that would have given Enron and other energy traders far larger markets for their energy sales. Hebert, true to his conservative beliefs, is a states’ rights advocate who was uncomfortable with the plan to merge the state utilities into four federal entities. Lay told Hebert flatly that if he supported the transition to the RTOs, Lay would back him in retaining his position with FERC. Hebert told reporters that he was “offended” at the veiled threat, but knew that Lay could back up his pressure, having already demonstrated his influence over selecting Bush administration appointees by giving Bush officials a list of preferred candidates and personally interviewing at least one potential FERC nominee (see January 21, 2001). (Moyers 2/2/2002; Parry 5/26/2006) According to Hebert, Lay told him that “he and Enron would like to support me as chairman, but we would have to agree on principles.” (Borger 5/26/2001) Hebert added to another reporter, “I think he would be a much bigger supporter of mine if I was willing to do what he wanted me to do.” Lay recently admitted to making such a list of preferred candidates: “I brought a list. We certainly presented a list, and I think that was by way of letter. As I recall I signed a letter which, in fact, had some recommendations as to people that we thought would be good commissioners.…I’m not sure I ever personally interviewed any of them but I think in fact there were conversations between at least some of them and some of my people from time to time.” (Moyers 2/2/2002)
Cheney Behind Ouster - Joe Garcia, a Florida energy regulator, says he was interviewed by Lay and other Enron officials. After Hebert made it clear to Lay that he wouldn’t go along with Lay’s plans to reorganize the nation’s utilities, Vice President Dick Cheney, who supervises the Bush administration’s energy policies (see May 16, 2001, began questioning Hebert’s fitness. (Borger 5/26/2001) Cheney said in May 2001, “Pat Wood has got to be the new chairman of FERC.” In private, Cheney said then that Hebert was out as chairman and Wood was in, though Hebert did not know at the time that his days were numbered. (Moyers 2/2/2002) “It just confirms what we believed and what we’ve been saying, that the Bush-Cheney energy plan is written by corporations and it’s in the interests of the corporations,” says the National Environmental Trust’s Kevin Curtis. (Borger 5/26/2001) Not only was Hebert not responsive enough to Lay’s pressure, but he had become a focus of criticism for his refusal to scrutinize Enron’s price gouging in the California energy deregulation debacle. Wood’s more moderate position helps ease the worries of other states themselves losing confidence in the Bush administration’s deregulation advocacy. (Bradley 1/2/2002)
Hebert Investigating Enron Schemes - And even more unsettling for Enron, Hebert was beginning to investigate Enron’s complicated derivative-financing procedures, an investigation that may have led to an untimely exposure of Enron’s financial exploitation of the US’s energy deregulation—exploitation that was going on under plans nicknamed, among other monikers, “Fat Boy,” “Death Star,” “Get Shorty,” all of which siphoned electricity away from areas that needed it most and being paid exorbitant fees for phantom transfers of energy supposedly to ease transmission-line congestion. (Parry 5/26/2006) “One of our problems is that we do not have the expertise to truly unravel the complex arbitrage activities of a company like Enron,” Hebert recently told reporters. “We’re trying to do it now and we may have some results soon.” (Borger 5/26/2001) Instead, Hebert is forced out of FERC. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) called for an investigation into Enron’s improper influence of the FERC committee after the media revealed Lay’s phone call to Hebert in May 2001 (see May 25, 2001).

Attorney General John Ashcroft says “I want to encourage…all Americans everywhere to be on the highest state of alert.” The FBI warns of a threat from Yemeni or Saudi Arabian terrorists who may be planning an imminent attack. (CNN 2/12/2002) It is later revealed that the threat hadn’t been corroborated by other US intelligence agencies. In addition, the threat actually indicated a more likely attack in Yemen. This announcement was made the same day that Enron CEO Kenneth Lay appeared before Congress. A week earlier, the White House had been ordered to refrain from destroying any documentation related to Enron. (Dreyfuss 9/21/2006 pdf file)

After nearly two years of legal wrangling, the Bush administration releases financial and other records from the November-December 2000 campaign to the Internal Revenue Service. Those records include hundreds of pages of documents regarding the Bush campaign’s efforts to win the Florida recounts (see 9:00 a.m. and after, November 22, 2000). The George W. Bush recount committee spent $13.8 million on its efforts to influence the recount, while long-available documents from the Al Gore recount operation show that Gore spent about a quarter of that amount, $3.2 million. The Bush campaign spent more than that on lawyers—$4.4 million. The Bush records document some 250 paid staffers, payouts of $1.2 million to fly operatives to and from Florida, and about $1 million in hotel bills. Additionally, a fleet of corporate jets was provided to the recount operation, many of them paid for by Enron Corporation and its CEO Kenneth Lay, a prominent Bush backer. Other jets were provided by Halliburton, where Vice President Dick Cheney had served as chairman and CEO. (Parry 8/5/2002)

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