WASHINGTON – In a pair of e-mails to his employees in August, the chairman of now-bankrupt Enron touted the company's stock and declared that the energy trader giant's growth "has never been more certain."
"Our performance has never been stronger; our business model has never been more robust. ... We have the finest organization in American business today," Ken Lay said in an Aug. 14 e-mail just two months before Enron's long-hidden financial problems surfaced.
In an Aug. 27 e-mail, Lay announced the details of an employee stock option program which spoke of "a significantly higher price" for Enron stock in the future. Selling for $37 a share in August, Enron stock now sells for 68 cents. The stock was at $83 a share a year ago.
"It appears that you misled your employees into believing that Enron was prospering and that its stock price would rise," Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, said in a letter Saturday to Lay. Waxman released the e-mails along with the letter to Lay, whose political donations along with those of other Enron executives have made the company President Bush's biggest financial supporter through two governor's races and the presidential election.
Enron spokesman Mark Palmer responded Saturday that the picture for the company was solid in August and that financial problems didn't become clear until later.
"Ken Lay was telling the truth" in August, said Palmer. "We had had 21 consecutive quarters of earnings growth, the same number of consecutive quarters of volume growth. Our core business at Enron had never been in better shape."
On Oct. 16, the company acknowledged hundreds of millions of dollars in third-quarter losses and a billion-dollar writedown of its equity, a belated admission that touched off a crisis in investor confidence and sent the company careening toward bankruptcy. The company for several years had kept huge amounts of debt off the company's books in partnerships that had been set up by Enron executives, who collected millions of dollars from the partnerships.
Declaring that Lay sold $40 million of Enron stock between January and August last year, Waxman demanded to know whether Lay was aware of the company's financial vulnerabilities.
"If you were not aware of this, please explain whether this was because Jeffrey Skilling or other executives withheld that information from you," Waxman wrote. Skilling had abruptly left the company in August after just six months as president and CEO.
In one of the August e-mails to employees, Lay said he regretted Skilling's "resignation. ... Jeff is resigning for personal reasons and his decision is voluntary.
Palmer said that "all of those partnerships had been through review processes and approval processes that were set up with and in many cases worked out with Arthur Anderson as our outside auditors, plus outside legal counsel."
The Enron spokesman said problems with the partnerships were brought to light "as the result of our investigation. We found there were accounting problems with one of those partnerships and we fixed that by restating those earnings and that was not knowledge we had in August."
"The company's later writedowns in connection with problems with the partnerships were not understood until later," Palmer added.
The company says its executives regularly sold some of their own Enron stock as part of their compensation packages. A lawsuit in Texas alleges that Enron's top management received $1.1 billion by selling 17.3 million shares of the company's stock from 1999 through mid-2001.