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Ken Lay even takes the Fifth in a mealy-mouthed way



Published: Thu, February 14, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



It should come as no surprise that even in refusing to answer any questions the other day before the Senate Commerce Committee, former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay felt compelled to issue a self-serving statement.

Lay resigned as chairman and chief executive of Enron Jan. 23. He stepped down as a member of the board of directors last week, at the same time that he abruptly canceled an appearance before a Senate committee investigating Enron's collapse.

At that time he accused members of the Senate of having already made up their minds about his guilt, based on statements made to the press. The senators had been reacting to an internal Enron investigation that said Lay and other managers had failed in their oversight of the company's off-the-books partnerships.

Lay said he was appearing before the committee with "a profound sadness about what has happened to Enron, its current and former employees, retirees, shareholders and other stockholders."

He also said he wanted to respond to the best of his knowledge to questions about the collapse of Enron, but had been instructed by his lawyers to invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to testify -- not that he had anything to hide, mind you.

Finally he quoted a Supreme Court decision that stated: "One of the Fifth Amendment's basic functions is to protect innocent men." His clear implication: he is among those beleaguered innocents.

Different courts: In a court of law, where a man is fighting to preserve his very freedom against criminal charges, no negative inference can or should be drawn from the invocation of the Fifth Amendment. But in the court of public opinion, Lay's silence only reinforces the perception that he knowingly built a house of cards from which he managed to pocket millions of dollars before it collapsed.

His appearance in the Senate did him no more good than did the appearance of his wife, Linda, on a morning talk show a few weeks ago. She described her husband as an unwitting victim. He may have been the CEO of a company he built virtually from scratch, but by her account he was totally unaware of the shadow companies that Enron used to siphon off profits or hide losses.

That's also the interview in which she described her family's struggle for "liquidity." In perhaps the week's only bright spot for Ken and Linda, they managed to achieve some liquidity by selling one of the four pieces of property they owned in Aspen, Colo., for $10 million -- a profit of $8 million on a house they bought in 1991. Even then, a spokesman tried to put a sad face on the deal, describing that particular house as the family's sentimental favorite.

Is anybody buying the bullfeathers that the Lays are selling these days?




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