As he watched his own nest egg vanish, Steven E. Lacey took stock of his devastated Enron Corp. colleagues and understood more about despair than he wanted to know.
"I could now understand why people jumped out of windows during the Great Depression," Lacey told a Senate hearing Thursday.
Lacey and other corporate workers who were blocked from selling their companies' plummeting stock spoke of "unbearable grief" and anger as they watched their retirement funds disappear after executives with insider knowledge cashed in.
They said company culture prompted them to invest large chunks of their money — if not all of it — in one place: their own firm. Lacey and other witnesses said they were blamed by others for failing to protect their money by diversifying.
"I find that offensive," fumed Jan Fleetham, a retired microcomputer analyst for Enron in Bloomington, Minn.
Lacey told the panel, "Some people did some very bad things. They lied to us. They quite possibly broke the law."
As some Enron executives across the Capitol refused to testify, citing their Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination, workers told senators in emotional terms that they are devastated, and they expect Congress and the courts to set things right.
Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., blamed the losses on "a crisis of corporate culture" revealed by the Enron implosion.
Kennedy, other lawmakers and the Bush administration are proposing ways to protect retirement accounts and place new regulations on the accounting, auditing and disclosure requirements of big firms.
Thursday, Enron workers gave an inside view of the damage.
They said their outrage was rooted in the corporate cheerleading that Lacey said executives delivered repeatedly last year, even as they must have known the company was in trouble.
"Performance has never been stronger," read an Aug. 14 e-mail from former CEO Kenneth Lay, who already had sold millions of dollars of his own Enron stock, the workers said. A week later, Lay sent another memo "expressing confidence" that company stock prices would continue to go up, Lacey said.
"Good investment decisions require honest information," former Enron employee Thomas O. Padgett, 59, of La Porte, Texas, told a House committee. He watched his 401k drop from $615,456 in December 2000 to $15,000 now. "We all know now that the information that we were given was false."
But the most painful, witnesses said, was their feeling of helplessness as they watched their stock — and their futures — tumble. They said they were unable to access their company website to monitor it and that phone calls weren't returned. Later, they received a memo declaring they were "locked out" of selling any stock while the company was moving to a new administrator for the plan.
During the lockout period — Oct. 26 to Nov. 13 — the stock dropped in price from $15.40 to $9.98.
Fleetham needed money to pay off debt and submitted an order to sell her Enron stock before the lockout period began. She said she received a check for $1,200 — well below what she believed the stock would be worth.
"It looks to me like they sold the stock when they good and well felt like it," the 62-year-old grandmother told the senators. All together, she said her retirement account, which at one time was worth $100,000, is now worth less than $600, she said.
Lacey, 46 and a second-generation employee from Portland, Ore., recalled weeping as he told his new bride that his $100,000 account was worth "next to nothing."
The lead plaintiff in a class action suit representing 21,000 employees, Lacey said his losses pale when compared to colleagues who had worked and saved for decades, only to lose it all.
"There are many more stories of folks who have delayed retirement or were going to finance their children's education with this money," he said.