HOUSTON – Losing his retirement investment in Enron Corp. was one thing. What really hurt, says Charles Prestwood, was realizing that his unwavering corporate loyalty ran only one direction.
"We had great trust, great loyalty," said Prestwood, 63, who retired as a plant operator in 2000. "We were trained loyalty above everything. And we were loyal. When you have that type of indoctrination for many years, it's going to get in the way of your life eventually."
More than a month after Enron shed more than 5,000 worldwide jobs and its stock bottomed out, retirees and laid-off workers from all walks of life are still facing up to the ways the enormous debacle has stung them.
Enron employees whose 401(k) accounts were filled with company stock watched helplessly as ceaseless bad news obliterated their value last fall, while a bookkeeping mechanism barred them from cashing out.
"I'll never trust my employer quite the same again," said Tim Dalton, a corporate security specialist who was among the 4,500 Houston workers laid off in December.
Enron chairman Kenneth Lay "was like the Pied Piper. We followed him like lemmings into the sea," said Deborah DeFforge, who might have to leave Houston for the West Coast to find work.
Congressional committees as well as the Justice and Labor departments want to know why many senior Enron executives and board members sold their stock when it was still valuable, while workers were barred from selling stock in their 401(k) funds.
Enron says its stock price, which stood at about $80 a year ago, already was down to $13.88 when a coincidental 10-day freeze on 401(k) transactions was implemented because the plan changed administrators. By the time transactions could resume, the price was $9.98. It now sells for about 68 cents.
The peak value of Prestwood's retirement account, about $1.3 million, might sound lavish. But he had intended to live simply off the dividends, plus Social Security and a small pension, withdrawing money only for things like "replacing the lawn mower or refrigerator if they break."
"What so hurts about the whole deal is that something you devote your whole life to, you see it destroyed right in front of your eyes," he said from his home on a quiet wooded country lot 40 miles north of Houston.
Prestwood is one of a number of former Enron workers who have filed lawsuits over their 401(k)s.
Dalton has funneled some of his energies into a Web site, http://www.thecrookede.com, where he sells Enron-bashing T-shirts. Some of the proceeds go to a fund he's established to help fellow Enron exes.
"We told someone we hope to sell some T-shirts for four to five months until it dies down," Dalton said. "'Die down?' they said, 'You'll be selling T-shirts all year as all the dishonesty and crookedness is exposed.'"
The anger also hasn't diminished for DeFforge, who is a plaintiff in "every suit I can get my hands on" and doesn't want to rest "until they're behind bars."
"To take that many people and dupe them for that length of time, yeah, we're pretty much all on a crusade," said DeFforge, a specialist in energy services until she was given 30 minutes to clean out her desk on Dec. 3.
While outsiders may scratch their heads as to why so many workers put so much of their retirement savings into company stock, Mike Black, a 54-year-old systems programmer, cites corporate messages last summer in which executives were saying shares "ought to be selling at $50 or $60" apiece.
Syed Ishaq said top executives assured workers the company would survive a few speed bumps, while never mentioning the curious off-balance sheet financing and crippling debt that were Enron's downfall.
"I even bought stock of the company when it was at $5 based on what I was told at an all-employee meeting!" Ishaq said in an e-mail. "Then I get laid off, I only get $4,500, which barely pays for one month of expenses, I immediately file for benefits and start looking for a job."
"We had no idea the books were messed up," Prestwood said. "When you're locked in and sit there crying and watching it melt down, something you've devoted your whole life to building, it's sad."