WASHINGTON – Congress tackled the Enron debacle head-on Tuesday with a second subpoena for Kenneth Lay, the former chairman of the bankrupt energy giant, who on Sunday had suddenly pulled out of scheduled congressional hearings into the company's collapse.
The vote was unanimous in the Senate Commerce Committee to compel Lay's appearance on Feb. 12. "We have no choice," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., one day after Lay scrubbed a voluntary appearance.
Lawmakers predicted Lay would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when he appears.
Lay's attorney, Earl Silbert, said he had already accepted a subpoena from a second congressional panel seeking testimony, this one in the House. The lawyer said any suggestion that Lay was "making himself scarce" is "absolute nonsense. He's in Houston with his family."
A sympathetic hearing was held, meanwhile, for a laid-off employee whose retirement savings all but disappeared when the company failed.
"This should not and cannot ever happen again in America," said Deborah Perrotta, who tearfully told lawmakers she lost $40,000 from her retirement account when Enron's stock price plummeted last fall.
On a day in which hearings spilled across Capitol Hill, lawmakers pummelled the head of Arthur Andersen, Enron's former accounting firm, for its handling of the energy firm's books. "At the end of the day we do not cause companies to fail," said Joseph Berardino, chief executive officer of Andersen Worldwide.
Congress aside, the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating the Enron bankruptcy, and politicians in both parties have scrambled to return campaign donations connected to the firm and its executives.
For his part, President Bush has called for legislation granting greater protection for the retirement accounts of average Americans.
"This is a business problem that our Justice Department is going to investigate and if there's wrongdoing we'll hold them accountable for mistreatment of employees and shareholders," he told reporters during the day, turning aside a suggestion from one Democrat for the appointment of an independent counsel.
Millions of investors lost money, and thousands of current and former Enron employees lost the great bulk of their retirement savings, when the company collapsed. An Enron-sponsored investigation released over the weekend blamed senior management for failing to provide proper supervision over a complex web of partnerships that helped the company hide debt and post unrealistic profit figures.
Once disclosed, these transactions contributed to the company's unraveling
At four hearings during the day, lawmakers expressed concern for the victims of the bankruptcy and anger at the actions taken at Enron and Arthur Andersen, the firm's accountants.
"You have squandered the integrity of your company," Rep. Gary Ackerman bluntly told Berardino, chief executive of Arthur Andersen.
Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, noted that the Enron internal investigation found active participation by Andersen in setting up the partnerships, and that the accounting firm had received $5.7 million for advice on the subject.
"You weren't just checking the boxes," he told Berardino.
The Andersen executive said he was still gathering the facts about his firm's relationship with Enron. "I did not do the audit of the company," he said at one point. At another, he added, "Information was withheld from us."
The company fired auditor David Duncan in January, accusing him of organizing the destruction of Enron documents.
At least two members of the panel asked Berardino whether his firm would donate any of its fees to the former employees who suffered catastrophic loss of retirement funds. He offered no commitment.
"We're deluding these ... people that they're ever going to get anything back," a third lawmaker, Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., observed at one point.
Perrotta, testifying before a Senate committee, said, "I am not alone in my pain. I'm just one of the thousands of former employees and retirees desperately looking for relief and eventual reform."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who presided, said he would subpoena information about last-minute bonuses paid to executives before the bankruptcy.
The committee also heard testimony about a period of roughly three weeks last fall when individuals were barred from selling any stock in their retirement accounts, a lockout attributed to a change in plan by administrators.
Because the price of Enron stock was dropping at the time, officials debated whether to postpone the lockout, but eventually decided not to. The company found "it was not feasible to notify more than 20,000 participants in a timely fashion," said Cindy Olson, Enron's executive vice president for human resources.
Enron's stock peaked at $82 a share, on Jan. 26, 2001. It was selling for $15.40 at the close of trading on Oct. 26, the day the lockout began, and had fallen to $9.98 on Nov. 13, the day it ended.
Olson also testified that Sherron Watkins, the company's vice president of corporate development, told her last summer she had concerns about the company's financial practices. Watkins wrote an anonymous letter to Lay detailing those concerns and later met with him.
Olson said she did nothing to pass on Watkins' concerns.
Oxley, the chairman of the committee, told reporters there had been no thought of giving Lay immunity when he appears, for fear of interfering with the investigations at the Justice Department and SEC. Lay is due before the House panel on Feb. 14, two days after his date with the Senate panel.
At yet another hearing, the author of the withering Enron internal investigation described how the executives "enriched themselves ... by tens of millions of dollars" through questionable partnerships.
William Powers, a dean at the University of Texas law school, said Enron's one-time chief financial officer, Andrew Fastow, made at least $30 million from the partnerships, including one deal in which investors known as the Fastow Family Foundation turned a $25,000 investment in a company he created into $4.6 million.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.