What Ken Lay might have missed
Commentary: He never had a chance at redemption
By Marshall Loeb, MarketWatch
Last Update: 12:01 AM ET Jul 6, 2006
NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — Pity Ken Lay.
The likeable Baptist preacher’s son never had the opportunity to prove that he was not corrupt but merely stupid.
That was, after all, his defense.
The diminutive giant of Houston business and society had sworn snappishly, under oath, at trial in his hometown last May that he had been blissfully unaware of the massive swindle that occurred at Enron while he was CEO of this complex energy colossus.
The jury of his not-quite-peers concluded that nobody — and surely not a big-time executive, not a Texas pal of the U.S. president who had nick-named him “Kenny Boy,” not a person widely expected to have a powerful future in politics ahead of him — could be that dumb.
Or that Lay could be so distanced from the real action in the company. Colleagues in the company joked that this bulging-briefcase workaholic was so eager to seize the moment and to take just about any action, that his management style was “ready, fire, aim.”
One popular book, “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” described his public image as one of “a thoughtful and visionary businessman, a caring community leader, and the philosopher-king of energy deregulation.”
So the jury rather quickly convicted him of fraud and conspiracy. He was set to be sentenced in October, and he faced 20 years in prison. It seemed quite likely that Lay, 64, who had never seen a charity that he didn’t like, would spend the rest of his tragic life behind bars.
Even then, there was always the chance that some appeals court would overturn the verdict on some obscure legal technicality.
Or that some writers in the future could present persuasive arguments that Lay was too wrapped up in politics and good causes, that he spent too much time on corporate boards (Compaq, Eli Lilly) and in Washington think tanks to really know what was going on deep in the bowels of Enron.
Or that a future U.S. president would pardon a humbled Lay in his great age. (Stranger things have happened.)
There was also the chance that Lay would become a model prisoner, that he would teach other inmates such subjects as law and business (though not accounting). In short, if he would not earn freedom, at least he might gain redemption, such as, say, Michael Milken, the wild Wall Streeter, did.
But now this will never be.
Instead, Lay will go down in business history as an asterisk, a man who played a rather minor role in one of the major dramas of corporate malfeasance. Had it turned out differently, even the victims — the tens of thousands of employees and shareholders of Enron, many of whom had lost small (or not so small) fortunes — could have taken some solace in the fact that Lay was being punished.
But now they won’t have even that grim satisfaction.
Instead, Ken Lay is dead, apparently the premature victim of a heart attack on a mountaintop near sumptuous Aspen, Colorado, where he had owned a home.
Looking for reasons or comparisons, one could turn only to Shakespeare, or the Bible.