Once a Corporate Father Figure, Lay Now a Condemned Business Titan

It's not just his company that is weighted with debits. Kenneth Lay's credibility is now a liability on his personal balance sheet.

Once a man with intimate access to Washington policy-makers, the former chairman of Enron Corp. appears before Congress on Monday as a business titan condemned by former employees and investors. They lost millions before the energy company entered bankruptcy Dec 2.

Until then, he was the father figure of the nation's seventh-largest company. Now, ex-Enron employees are selling T-shirts printed with the message: "Enron, the corporation that stole Christmas."

Politicians from President Bush on down who welcomed Lay's generous political donations now keep a wide distance.

Lay is dogged by investigators from the Justice and Labor departments, the Securities and Exchange Commission and 12 congressional panels — all looking for evidence of fraud or whether Enron's creative accounting crossed the line into criminality.

Lay's scheduled testimony Monday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will be the first time he has spoken publicly about the Enron collapse.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, who will preside at the hearing, says Lay will be asked about the complicated web of Enron partnerships, document shredding, accounting practices and the role of directors.

"Who was in charge?" Dorgan, D-N.D., asks rhetorically. "What did they do? What did they know?"

Lay's wife, Linda, says her husband is eager to talk. She says he is an "honest, decent, moral" man who was kept in the dark about some things.

Former Enron workers and business ethics experts, however, are skeptical about an "out-of-the-loop" defense.

Board members should have intimate knowledge of how a corporation's books are kept, said John Ahern, accounting professor and director of the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University in Chicago.

"He can deny that he knew, but nobody is going to believe it," he said. "He's the guy. He's the boss. It's just not credible that he can say `I didn't understand these transactions."'

John Allario, an ex-Enron employee from Houston who founded Laydoff.com, a Web site for the more than 4,500 Enron employees who lost their jobs, said Enron's top executives "all knew enough to have possibly prevented this debacle."

"I wish Ken no personal harm," Allario said. "I pray he is strong enough to see this through, but my professional anger — and frustration — is still high and gets higher each day."

It's odd that Lay has a "father-figure" reputation while his company is seen as hard-hitting, says Lori Tansey Martens, president of the International Business Ethics Institute, based in Washington.

"He has this almost genteel image," she said. "Yet, from all accounts, the culture at Enron was highly aggressive — like swimming with the sharks."

Some documents already released show Lay helped set up and oversee some of the financial accounts being investigated by the government. Others indicate he was aware that questions were being raised about Enron's accounting practices at the time he was encouraging employees to keep buying stock.

Lay is taking a personal risk appearing in Congress, says Bill Brandt, president of Chicago-based Development Specialists, one of the nation's largest business restructuring consultants.

"He's a better man if he steps up and tells the truth to Congress," Brandt said. "On the other hand, this stuff is being told under oath. It's risky strategy providing testimony that could later be questioned in a criminal investigation."

Whatever he tells the panels, Lay probably will be remembered as the man who led Enron to collapse.

"This process is very much like death," Brandt said. "There's a time of denial. There's a time of grieving. And there's a time of acceptance.

"I think his efforts to say `I was out of the loop, I didn't know what was going on' are part of denial."