Enron’s Vince Foster?
Why would a man who wanted to hire a bodyguard one day kill himself the next? This is the question that rattles conspiracy theorists in the case of Cliff Baxter, the Enron whistleblower whose death by gunshot last week in Sugar Land, Texas, was ruled a suicide. Baxter had been subpoenaed to testify this week on Capitol Hill. Those who doubt the official line think he’s another Vince Foster, murdered in cold blood to stop him from spilling the beans on Enron chief Ken Lay and blowing open the whole scam—offshore accounts, political connections, and all.
Fueled by a report on Democraticunderground.com, skeptics are homing in on the Harris County coroner, Joye M. Carter, a former D.C. medical examiner who graduated from Howard and currently is attached to Baylor and the University of Texas. After performing a court-requested autopsy, Carter’s office declared the former Enron exec had killed himself. While saying they respected that decision, local police said they intended to continue investigating.
Carter has had her share of controversy. In 1998, Harris County paid a former employee in the medical examiner’s office $375,000, after a jury agreed Carter fired her for reporting potentially illegal cover-ups. Then a federal court awarded another whistleblower $250,000 after she was fired for reporting that an unlicensed physician had performed autopsies. In 2000, writes The Houston Chronicle, a Harris County commissioner asked the county to hire an outside law firm to review Carter’s hiring and firing practices.
Ken Lay’s wife, Linda, said on Today that she wished they’d known Baxter was suffering. “We would have gone and been with him,” she said. “We would have done anything we could to have helped him, helped his family, but we had no idea he was in that kind of pain.”
What Cheney’s Hiding
In refusing to turn over records from his energy task force, Vice President Dick Cheney apparently thinks the public can be convinced he has nothing damaging to conceal. But the smell of involvement by Enron officials, who discussed policy with Cheney in off-the-record confabs, is too pungent to ignore. One look at California’s energy crisis reveals a pattern of engagement between the White House and the energy firm.
While Enron is not an important player in producing electricity in California, it is believed to have a 15 to 20 percent hold on gas sales there, so it stood to gain from the state’s shortage of electricity. The stage for blackouts was set when the state deregulated electricity in September 1996. When consumer groups protested this move by pressing for Proposition 9, aimed at blocking a bailout of utilities’ bad debts, the industry defeated the measure with a $38 million lobbying campaign. Enron has been a major player in California politics, spending $195,830 on its issues there in 2000—more than in any other state except Texas, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
By the spring of 2001, the California energy crisis was in full swing. On May 7 and 8, the state was hit by a third round of rolling blackouts, which came to an end when Governor Davis agreed to underwrite the industry with the largest municipal bond offering in American history.
Then, on May 11, Enron boss Ken Lay visited Los Angeles in support of deregulation, hosting a dinner with former mayor Richard Riordan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Michael Milken.
Five days later, the Cheney task force issued its report, urging relaxation of environmental regulations and increased drilling in protected areas (i.e., the Alaska wildlife refuge). Lay and other Enron execs were advisors to Cheney’s task force and Lay himself met at least once with the veep. Enron, along with other oil and gas producers, would benefit from the new policies, because they not only leaned heavily on drawing electric power from gas-fired plants but also eased the way for exploration of domestic gas reserves.
So far, the energy crisis has cost California residents $8.5 billion. That doesn’t include $23 billion in government bailouts and an expected additional $40 billion. As lawmakers debate whether taxpayers should foot the bill for Enron’s collapse, they should consider the extent to which we’ve already borne the cost of Enron’s follies.
State of the Dubya
An assessment of George Bush’s first year as president comes down to just two things: winning the war on terrorism and getting clear of the Enron implosion. The war may momentarily detract from the biggest domestic scandal in U.S. history, but not for long. Bush set out to get Osama bin Laden and the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar—and after bombing a lot of Afghan villages, apparently got neither. Meanwhile, as long predicted, Al Qaeda troops have melted away into the countryside to fight another day, and any number of warlords have been resurrected to fight each other.
Things are going back to where they were before the Taliban imposed its fundamentalist regime, but this time, we’re stuck in the middle, projecting—if that’s the word for it—political power. We’re on the verge of destabilizing Central Asia and the Middle East, endangering the Pakistani government, and rubbing raw the discontent between Pakistan and India. We may very well lose Saudi Arabia as an ally. Now facing life in prison, the erstwhile Talib John Walker Lindh is at best a scapegoat, while the detainees at Guantánamo provide a focus for global fury. Running a war on half a dozen fronts and giving the finger to the rest of the world will just end up isolating the U.S.
Enron is Bush’s libertarian symbol, deregulation run amok. The issue is whether he has the guts to get rid of Lawrence Lindsey, his economic counselor, who had close ties to the Enron hierarchy; dump his secretary of the army, Thomas White, a former Enron exec who has an appearance of conflict of interest; and sack the ridiculous Harvey Pitt, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who in 1994 actually wrote a law review article suggesting companies destroy their records lest the docs end up on the front page of The New York Times. Even that step might not do the trick here, since sooner or later Congress will get into Enron’s role in manipulating the California energy crisis, in which Bush performed like a Lay stooge, and Enron’s mega-million-dollar boondoggle of an Indian power plant. The latter could do serious harm to American foreign policy. The subcontinent is a part of the world with vast potential markets for U.S. goods and services. And nowhere in the world do we look more like real bastards, ripping off hundreds of thousands of poor people on electricity for the benefit of a few rich scumbags in Texas.
“The FBI has surely known for several months that the anthrax attack was an inside job,” posts Dr. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York at Purchase who is leading an investigation by the Federation of American Scientists into what increasingly appears to have been domestic bioterrorism. Rosenberg says the government’s own estimate of the number of scientists involved in the U.S. anthrax program over the last five years is 200 people, with fewer than 50 having hands-on experience and access to the bacteria. Since the FBI has been provided with lists of specific sources “with credible motives from a number of knowledgeable inside sources,” she states flatly, “[b]y now the FBI must have a good idea of who the perpetrator is.”
Last month The Hartford Courant unearthed details of an early 1990s scandal at Maryland’s Fort Detrick, in which cliques of bickering scientists were pitted against one another in the lab. During this period of labor strife, according to a 1992 inventory, lab specimens of anthrax spores, ebola virus, and other pathogens vanished—27 specimens altogether. The scenes of quarreling scientists are contained in an army report brought to light by the Courant. In addition, the army’s inquiry found that a mysterious intruder visited the lab at night to conduct research apparently involving anthrax and, after hiding traces of the activity, left by morning. The sole evidence of his existence was the misspelled word “antrax” imbedded in the computer’s memory.
A scientist who worked there said that as late as 1997 anyone with a security clearance could have walked in and out with an anthrax batch. In 1992, after the specimens had disappeared, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Langford was placed in command of the slipshod lab. “I knew we had to basically tighten up what I thought was a very lax and unorganized system,” he told the Courant.
Meanwhile, an NPR report claimed government investigators were looking into the anti-abortion Traditional Values Coalition, which had written critical letters to senators Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle before the attacks. The Coalition scoffed at the report and said NPR was a Democratic puppet.
Additional reporting: Michael Ridley