HOUSTON – Knowing Enron was about to file for bankruptcy, company executives in late November quickly withdrew millions of dollars in compensation and bonuses they had deferred. Money was wired to some bank accounts in less than 24 hours.
These 11th-hour payments are now being called unfair by Enron retirees and former executives whose attempts to tap their own funds were denied.
"This is a case of Enron's gross mismanagement depriving people of their retirement income," said Dan Ryser, a former Enron executive who estimates $15 million may have been withdrawn before the company filed for bankruptcy on Dec. 2.
Ryser believes Enron may have broken the law by paying certain executives while rejecting others, primarily those who had already left the company.
"It's blatant discriminatory treatment," Ryser said, alluding to a law that prohibits "preferential payments" in the 90 days leading up to a bankruptcy filing.
Enron spokesman Vance Meyer said the issue will undoubtedly be resolved in bankruptcy court, though he could not provide details about how many executives received accelerated payouts from deferred compensation before Enron's collapse.
Deferred compensation allows executives to put off salaries and bonuses until retirement, when they are in lower tax brackets. At Enron, the money was held in unfunded trusts, whose growth matched hypothetical investments in mutual funds. For its part, Enron essentially used the funds as a loan.
Because deferred payments become part of the company's general assets, they are available to creditors in the event of a bankruptcy. Bankruptcy experts said Enron may have favored current employees over retirees as a way to build loyalty and increase confidence among its dwindling ranks.
Steve Pearlman, 41, a former Enron executive, had socked away $260,000 since 1998 and was scheduled to receive incremental payments beginning in 2002. But when Enron's fortunes declined last fall, Pearlman decided to play it safe and, despite the 10 percent penalty for cashing out early, he sent a letter to Enron's benefits department.
"The company kept assuring me, `No problem, no problem,"' Pearlman said. While he was waiting for a check to arrive, Enron filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Dec. 2. He then had a real problem.
The hundreds of former executives who participated in the plan have been lumped together with the legions of unsecured creditors trying to recoup money from Enron through the bankruptcy process.
"The situation is looking bleak," Pearlman said.
Whether Enron broke the law or those who got paid will be forced to give the money back is an issue likely to be taken up in the New York bankruptcy court. Greg Whalley, a former president of Enron, oversaw the deferred compensation plan.
Exactly who got paid is unknown, but a senior Enron executive who was paid just days before the bankruptcy filing acknowledged that the process appeared to favor those still employed by Enron.
"Mine got processed in 24 hours," said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said he was aware of a claim by a retiree filed the same day that was never paid out.
Among those who were denied was Mary Wyatt, a former executive who said she had built up roughly $500,000 in deferred bonuses. While she had already begun to receive payments a year earlier, Wyatt said she became "panicky" about ever seeing the rest in mid-November, when a friend still employed by Enron alerted her that bankruptcy papers were being prepared and deferred compensation accounts were being emptied.
"It's unbelievable to me," Wyatt said. "I thought I had a half-million dollars in the bank."