Hear that creaking sound? That's the conventional wisdom about the Bush administration being in the clear on Enron starting to shift.
The early questions about whether the Treasury or Commerce Secretaries did anything for Enron when they got desperate calls late last Fall really miss the point. Once it became clear that Enron had been losing money hand over fist and that the company was -- as Enron Exec Sherron Watkins had told Ken Lay -- "an elaborate accounting hoax," what exactly was it they could have done?
So long as the President didn't issue an executive order freezing trading in Enron stock or take some other unimaginable action, there was really nothing that could be done. Enron's goose was cooked.
The questions about what favors got done are going to be ones that did or didn't get done earlier.
And as Byron York correctly notes in this article in National Review Online, the White House's growing unwillingness to answer questions is beginning to worry administration supporters.
For my money, I think the allegations stemming from Ken Lay's apparent axing of the former head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Curtis Hebert, are the first ones I've heard that really could stick.
Hebert, a Republican, got cross-wise with Ken Lay during the California energy crisis. And Lay made it clear to him that if he didn't play ball he "could no longer support [Hebert] as chairman." Hebert didn't play ball and pretty soon after that he was gone.
Hebert goes to pretty great lengths not to draw a direct connection between Lay and his being pushed aside at FERC. But his argument, frankly, strains credibility.
In any case, decide for yourself. Here's a transcript from CNN from the 15th ...
MARCHINI: What did Ken Lay want from you?
What good, indeed?
HEBERT: Well, actually Ken Lay wanted me to mandate regional transmission organizations, which I had told him there was no legal basis for under the Federal Power Act, not to mention it was not in the best interest of America. As you remember, at this same time last year, we had high prices in California and in the West. We even had the lights going out from time to time.
HEBERT: It certainly was not the time to do something like that when, quite frankly, you're worried about Americans having the lights on and having lower prices and reasonable energy.
MARCHINI: You didn't agree with Mr. Lay. What was the fallout?
HEBERT: Well, I didn't agree with him. Then he informed me that quite frankly, he and his company, Enron, could no longer support me as chairman. So, you know, have it as you will, that was his wish. But, you know, so many people want to give Ken Lay such great weight. I never gave him the amount of weight I think some people did. He certainly tried to wield a big stick as did a lot of his executives in Washington and in states throughout America.
But Enron, I never really saw as someone who could give me expertise as to where we should be going energy in America. I thought they were always looking after the best interest of Enron and never, quite frankly, the best interest of the electrical industry.
MARCHINI: Do you feel that a lack of Ken Lay's support cost you your job as the head of the FERC?
HEBERT: I never had any reason to believe that the White House was influenced by Ken Lay. I know he has a lot of friends, certainly, in the administration. Because he is-throughout Texas and has done a lot of work there. But the reason I had left the FERC was because the administration brought in two appointees, quite frankly, that agreed with Mr. Lay on mandating the regional transmission organizes. And they disagreed with me. There was already one member at FERC that agreed with them. So, I no longer had the balance, if you will, of the FERC. What good was it to be chairman?