This article has been chosen as a Making Sense of These Times

If you were wondering if Enron was not going to fulfill its promise to become this administration's Watergate – or, perhaps more precisely, this democracy's Watergate – take heed of William Pitt's sharp reportage (there's another Five Star piece of his we posted, Hell to Pay, a chilling perspective on how 9/11 came to pass). "Watergate burned slow and hot for two years before it lit the sky. The deliberate process behind Congress's Enron investigation is eerily reminiscent of this. One thing is certain: the ground in Washington is slowly heating up. One does not need to see a pillar of smoke to know a fire is burning."

March 26, 2002

Enron: The Slow Burn
William Rivers Pitt

Any Western smokejumper will tell you that the most dangerous kind of forest fires aren't the ones that burn in the treetops, but the ones that burn slow and hot in the duff just below the surface of the ground. Treetop fires can be seen for miles, allowing firefighters to track them and contain them. Fires that smolder just beneath the surface, fed by years worth of fallen leaves that can lay as thick as a foot below the forest floor, can burn undetected for acres in every direction. Only when the flames explode upwards, charring everything around them to dust in the blink of an eye, does the danger become apparent.

This analogy is appropriate when considering the last two political scandals of significance that scorched the woods of Washington, D.C. The Whitewater scandal of the Clinton years was a treetop fire: visible in all directions, it spit sparks into the wind that singed but never fully burned down the President of the United States. In the end, its own lack of substance caused it to burn out. The recently released Special Counsel report codified the years and money spent investigating Whitewater as a colossal waste of time and energy.

For a long time, the Whitewater fire lit the sky. Reading accounts by former conservative assassins like David Brock, or simply parsing the tortured language of Investigator Robert Ray, one is left with the undeniable sense that those who participated in the aggrandizement of the Whitewater scandal knew in their hearts that there was nothing to it. It was a far sharper political tool than a legal one. This explains why the fire burned so bright. The flames fanned by partisan operatives obscured the true proportions of the scandal.

The other scandal of note, involving the disgraced firms Enron and Arthur Andersen, glows hardly at all. One must peruse the back pages of newspapers and the daytime television of C-SPAN to hear anything about it. The New York Times, which for a time carried at least two Enron stories per day on its front page, has moved on to more combustible pastures. As a scandal, it has become quite dull from the media perspective. In reality, however, the fire has moved below the surface. It burns slow, hot and undetected. It has become dangerous.

Consider the implications of the Federal criminal indictment recently handed down against the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. Andersen, bookkeepers for Enron, stands accused of obstruction of justice for their shredding of bales of pertinent Enron documentation. The executives of Andersen are not accused - it is the corporation itself that has been criminally charged. If the Justice Department prevails in its case, Andersen's ability to operate will be suspended for five years. This is, as Andersen representatives have claimed, a death sentence for the company.

Justice has a strong case, as evidenced by the particulars of another instance where the federal government pursued a corporation in a criminal prosecution. In the ruling for 'United States v. Hilton Head Corp.,' the judge declared:

"A corporation is responsible for the acts and statements of its agents, done or made within the scope of their employment, even though their conduct may be contrary to their actual instructions or contrary to the corporation's stated policies."

This decision was later affirmed on appeal. (467 F.2d 1000)

The legal and the political are tightly intertwined here. If George W. Bush's own Justice Department is pursuing Arthur Andersen with such deadly intent, despite its connections to Enron and all attendant political implications, something serious is afoot. Unless the case is compromised from within, U.S. v. Andersen promises to erase one of the largest accounting firms on Earth. This fact alone stands the Enron scandal tall in political importance.

Congress has begun firing out a new round of subpoenas in the Enron matter, focusing new scrutiny on connections between the energy corporation and the White House. The scope of these subpoenas covers 1992 through the present, which means Clinton's dealings with Enron will likewise be examined. This lends a bipartisan veneer to the proceedings, a wise tactic that should serve to knock down accusations of unfairness by Republicans who feel the ground getting hot beneath their feet.

Most important to this ten-year scope is the fact that it will cover any and all dealings Bush had with Ken Lay back in his Texas gubernatorial days. It was there that the ties between these two men were forged, on both personal and policy levels, and it is there that the evident political connections within Bush's national energy policy were created. Like the Enron investigation, the focus of the Whitewater investigations was on Clinton's dealings before he arrived in Washington, D.C. Unlike Whitewater, this Enron work by Congress moves slowly and quietly, almost completely beneath the radar of the media.

The gold standard for Washington political scandals is, of course, Watergate. Before Watergate became a treetop blaze that burned Nixon's administration to the ground, it was a slow, smoldering fire that did not earn a great deal of notice. The Watergate break-in that started everything happened on June 17, 1972, when the burglars were arrested in the act. The conflagration did not truly begin until October 20, 1973, after the infamous "Saturday Night Massacre." The principal actors were not indicted until March of 1974. Nixon did not resign until August of that year.

Watergate burned slow and hot for two years before it lit the sky. The deliberate process behind Congress's Enron investigation is eerily reminiscent of this. One thing is certain: the ground in Washington is slowly heating up. One does not need to see a pillar of smoke to know a fire is burning.

William Rivers Pitt is freelance writer and a regular contributor to You can visit Will at :

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