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Why con investors? Because that's where the money was



Published: Fri, January 25, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



It was only a metaphor, but a metaphor that every congressional committee investigating the collapse of Enron should bear in mind.

"Enron robbed the bank, Arthur Andersen provided the getaway car and they say you were at the wheel," Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa, told David Duncan, the Arthur Andersen accounting firm's lead auditor on the Enron account, at the opening of a hearing Thursday.

Perhaps Greenwood was only trying to be colorful, but we find the image he evoked of a bank robbery significant because we think that Congress and the nation must continue to view the actions of Enron executives and their accomplices at Anderson as clearly criminal in nature.

They robbed no bank at gunpoint, but they stole from bankers, brokers and tens of thousands of investors. It was revealed this week that President Bush's mother-in-law lost nearly $9,000 on her investment in Enron. What Enron and its auditors did to her reminds us of the conmen who prey on the elderly, charging them thousands of dollars to spread a few gallons of cheap paint on a driveway or a roof. The conman lies about the value of the service he performs; Enron lied about the value its company's stock provided the investor.

Different lies, same effect. The buyer gets cheated while the seller walks away with bulging pockets.

No immunity: Congress, which will have as many as 10 committees and subcommittees conducting investigations, must keep the criminal nature of this scandal in mind at every turn. No one who is called to testify during these hearings should be offered immunity until the parameters of the criminal investigation are clear. Many will likely do what Duncan did, invoke their 5th Amendment right against self incrimination. They'll be dealt with in time.

At this point, the Justice Department is overseeing the investigation, although Attorney General John Ashcroft has recused himself. There have already been calls for the department to name an independent counsel to head the investigation. While the Whitewater-era independent counsel law has expired, the attorney general still has the power to name an outside prosecutor.

That's an issue that is likely to be debated in Washington in days to come. In the meantime, the most important thing for Congress to do is to do no harm to the potential criminal cases that would bring the perpetrators of the Enron fraud to justice.




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