Once again the idea that a company can't survive unless some of the key people who were there when it went aground has prevailed in bankruptcy court.
This time, the company involved is the most infamous bankruptcy in recent history, Enron Corp.
U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Arthur J. Gonzalez, sitting in New York, approved a bonus and severance program of up to $140 million that Enron officials said they need in order to retain people vital to its survival.
Employees have been leaving the company at a rate of more than 30 a week since January, Enron officials say. That sounds like a lot of people -- until you consider that Enron fired 4,500 employees last year when its house of cards crumpled. If it brought those employees back at the same 30-per-week rate, it would take the company about three years to run out of names.
Of course that is simplistic.
A lot of the people who left were at lower levels of the company and couldn't do the jobs of the people at the top. Then, too, it was those people at the top who got the company into the mess it's in now. The people at the very top cashed out a long time ago, some of them stuffing tens of millions of dollars in their pockets as they ran for the door. (One woman who oversaw a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to buy up worldwide water assets left a year before the collapse and sold her stock fro $81 million.)
But aside from the stars of the Enron production, a lot of management types had to suspect that something just wasn't right at Enron. They can't have all been clueless. Which brings us back around to what's wrong with these bonuses. People who knew or should have known something was amiss are now being rewarded for their silence and their willingness to stay around. If they didn't know, it can be reasonably argued that they're not so sharp as to be indispensable.
At least Judge Gonzalez said that the recipients of the bonuses cannot be defendants in lawsuits related to Enron's collapse or among those identified as culpable in a report that blamed the company's downfall on its executives, board of directors, auditors and others. Also, beneficiaries must sign affidavits saying they haven't committed insider trading and that if they commit any misdeeds they would forfeit the money.
That's still small consolation to the thousands who aren't getting paychecks, much less bonuses.