The 'inquisitors' who will frame Enron story

Tone and import of Hill probe is the dictate of a powerful fewcongressmen.

One is a peppery Cajun whose Louisiana district is home to the firm that makes Tabasco sauce. Another is a former FBI agent from Ohio not known for quietly following the party line. A third is a Connecticut Democrat whose political skills were evident at such a young age that his college nickname was "Senator."

These three - Rep. Billy Tauzin (R), Rep. Michael Oxley (R), and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) - are among the most notable of the lawmakers overseeing the sprawling landscape of the Enron hearings. With Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, and a few others, they form a loose-knit council of Grand Inquisitors whose own motives and backgrounds will do much to determine what the congressional probes produce.

It is witnesses and documents, of course, which will tell the tale of the giant energy firm's descent into bankruptcy. But it is the inquistors

who will elicit that story, frame it for public consumption, and propose any legislative remedies. "We are uncovering new leads every day. And as explosive as this has been to date, we believe the real fireworks are still down the road," says Ken Johnson, a Tauzin aide.

The spectacle of Enron hearings is now playing on Capitol Hill full time. So far they have produced such notable moments as former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling testifying that he was ignorant of some of the company's most questionable practices - and a panel of other ex-high-ranking Enronites saying under oath that Mr. Skilling knew exactly what was going on.

The long-time driving force behind Enron's rise, former chairman Kenneth Lay, was set to swear to tell the truth before a Senate committee today. But he's not likely to say much more than that. His spokeswoman has already signaled that Mr. Lay will refuse to testify.

But who's watching?

Many Americans are paying relatively little attention to the Enron affair, judging by a Christian Science Monitor/ TIPP poll conducted over the weekend. More than half said they were paying "only some," or less, attention to Enron. About 40 percent of Americans are paying a "great deal" or "quite a bit" of attention.

But feelings are strong about the impact of the case. Some 75 percent see Enron's collapse having a negative impact on the US economy. Solid majorities want to see new safeguards for 401(k) retirement plans (67.4 percent), stricter accounting standards (56.9 percent), and tougher disclosure requirements (58 percent) for publicly held companies.

For both parties there are big stakes in the outcome of the Enron probes. Republicans were at the receiving end of 73 percent of the $5.8 million that the company poured into political campaigns in the last decade. GOP leaders have continually described the Enron debacle as a corporate scandal.

On the other hand, Democrats generally want to portray the affair as both a corporate and a political scandal, due to the long-standing personal and financial ties between Enron and high administration officials, including President Bush himself. In doing so, they must strike a delicate balance, as many top Democrats also took money from Enron and backed legislation that was also supported by the now-bankrupt energy giant.

So far, the most flamboyant of the Grand Inquisitors is Mr. Tauzin of Louisiana, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The undisputed star of the 2000 Firestone Tire hearings, Mr. Tauzin goes after witnesses with a finger-jabbing, staccato style that can derail the most well-coached corporate witnesses.

Early on, his committee and its 15 investigators amassed some 80 cartons of documents on the Enron case. They also uncovered the first evidence of internal corporate whistleblowers and the shredding of documents, which were then strategically leaked to news media to keep the corporate side of the scandal at the top of the news.

Let's put a burr under his saddle

As Tauzin took the mike to question former Enron CEO Skilling at a hearing last week, an aide whispered: "You're going to have to put a burr under his saddle to rattle him." Tauzin winked and said, "Watch this." By the end of the hard-driving interrogation on Enron's "seven deadly secrets," the witness was pleading confusion and pressure as excuses for lapses.

But committee staff say they may not need Enron executives to yield up too many answers, since the 2 million documents they have in their possession - or will have viewed by the end of the month - could tell the story.

Down the hall, Mr. Oxley of Ohio is taking a deliberately less strident approach to the Enron investigation. A three-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation before taking up politics, Oxley is worried that an overzealous Congress may muddy the waters for possible criminal indictments on down the line.

Plainspoken and low-key, Oxley was the first of 12 committee chairmen out of the gate on Enron. His committee called a hearing only a week after the energy-trading giant declared bankruptcy.

From the start, he tried to keep a narrow focus on corporate wrongdoing, not possible influence peddling or a more sweeping indictment of deregulation. And he is eager to prevent the Enron investigation from expanding into an indictment of the deregulation policies of the 1980s and '90s, which he strongly endorsed.

"Some may use Enron's bankruptcy as a vehicle to make big-government arguments against electricity markets," he said at a Dec. 12 hearing. "But it wasn't the electricity consumer who was hurt by Enron's fall; it was the workers and investors."

Senatorial civility

On the Senate side, Democrats control committee agendas and are signaling a desire to more forcefully investigate any political aspects of the Enron story. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has one of the sharpest tongues on Capitol Hill and is not mincing words on Enron.

"It's a big political scandal, and I look on it as an opportunity to finally get on top of this corruption of money in politics," he said on CBS Face the Nation on Sunday. His hearings promise to be as flamboyant as Tauzin's, but with a wider scope.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who chairs the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, is striking a tone of fairness and balance in his hearings. A veteran of high-profile hearings in 2000 on the marketing of violent movies and videogames to children, he is also well versed in how to stage hearings with top corporate executives. But his own political ambitions could keep these hearings well within the bounds of gravitas and civility.

The most anticipated hearings could be those chaired by Mr. Levin. With rumpled suits, tousled hair, and one of the sharpest minds in the Senate, Levin is a master of complicated probes.

His committee is quietly sifting through a stash of documentation that rivals Tauzin's, but is likely to use hearings to push for new laws to regulate industry.

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