WASHINGTON – Under fire from Senate Democrats, a feisty Army Secretary Thomas White said he never did anything unethical during his time as an executive for the now-bankrupt energy giant Enron Corp.
"I, like thousands of other people, have been appalled and outraged by the facts that have come to light since I left the corporation," White said. "I am ashamed of what's happened to that corporation, and the damage it's done to all of us."
White was vice chairman of an Enron subsidiary that dealt with retail power. Democrats on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee grilled him about Enron memos from 2000 outlining strategies that critics say manipulated the wholesale energy market in California to cash in on the state's power crunch two years ago.
White denied any knowledge or involvement.
"I was never aware of, or read the memos on alleged power trading strategy at the wholesales services. I never worked for wholesale services, I was never involved in its trading operations. So I can not testify as to how these operations were conducted," White said.
Enron's December bankruptcy was the first of a series of business scandals that have rocked the stock market and prompted Congress to push for passage of legislation that would crack down on corporate fraud and accounting irregularities.
Democrats are trying to use the scandals as an election-year issue against Republicans, pointing to President Bush's close ties to corporate leaders and the large number of former business executives, such as White and Vice President Dick Cheney, in his administration.
Most of Thursday's questioning concerned the electricity crisis in California and neighboring states in 2000 and 2001 that caused soaring utility bills, rolling blackouts and the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas and Electric.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and others grilled White about trading strategies in California's electricity market detailed in December 2000 Enron memos. The memos described several schemes that critics say took advantage of California's power crisis, including one that involved White's Enron subsidiary, Enron Energy Services.
EES had long-term contracts to provide power to retail customers in California and other states. One Enron strategy called for using inflated estimates of how much power EES customers needed to show congestion in California's electricity grid — thereby driving up the price of power supplied by Enron's wholesale power divisions.
Democrats expressed anger and skepticism that as an executive in one division, White would claim ignorance of another division's activity.
"Everybody out there who's deeply involved in investigating this says here's the way it happened: one part of the company facilitated the other part of the company making a fortune," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D.
But in fact, investigators have consistently said they have found no evidence of wrongdoing by White.
In the 11 years that White worked at Enron, he earned roughly $50 million in salary. Before leaving the company to become Army secretary, White sold $12 million in Enron stock to avoid a conflict of interest.
Democrats asked if he has considered giving up the money to which he replied not at all.
"No, I have not," he said. "I don't consider gains of running a business in a responsible way to be ill-gotten."
The Enron scandal broke after White had taken over the Army. Democrats used charts and graphs to show that White made dozens of calls to his former colleagues during the collapse and suggested something improper.
"It doesn't look good to have all these escalating number of phone calls, the divestiture of stock following those, calling all those insider people. It just doesn't look right," said Boxer.
She also called for the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate those calls. Noting that many occurred after the Sept. 11 attacks, Boxer asked how White found the time.
The Army boss snapped.
"I want to just say that implying that 77 phone calls somehow detracted from my ability to run the Army and this war, I'm just not going to sit here and accept that. I fundamentally disagree," he said.
White never gave an inch, and neither did Democrats, who said they were unhappy with his testimony. One Democrat even said he would demand an investigation of White personally.
The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should not be looking just at Enron, but they should also be looking at the role of Mr. White as a senior official," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
After the hearing, Boxer said she found White to be "evasive, argumentative, not contrite" about what happened, and sent White a letter renewing her call first made Wednesday for White to resign.
"I believe it is in the best interest of the country for you to step down as the secretary of the Army as I believe today's hearing will spark more investigations and more distraction from your crucial duties," Boxer wrote.
White has made it clear he does not intend to step down.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.