Power Play, Radio 4
Why you should never trust an ex-Enron employee to weed the garden
Sunday 28 June 2009
One of the most ghastly features of the MPs' expenses scandal has been that not one of them seems to think they're in the wrong. We did everything by the book, they squealed.
And technically, with the exception of the alleged tax fraudsters, they're correct. They may have acted with the moral rectitude of a bucketful of piranhas, but by and large they were just taking advantage of lax regulations.
It was the same with the credit crunch – bankers were following the rules, not breaking them. The Enron scandal, too, was a monster spawned by the free market. As one of the former energy giant's traders in Radio 4's Power Play put it: "When you introduce smart people to dumb rules, smart people find ways round them."
This gripping two-parter investigated the scandal in two ways. While Tuesday's second part was a standard-issue radio play, Monday's first part was a docudrama. A breathless mix of archive material from the Senate Committee hearings and dramatised passages from the Enron trading floor, it told the whole outrageous tale at a fair old clip. It was 45 minutes but felt like 15.
Enron was essentially a company of energy brokers, the middlemen between suppliers and consumers – "we make money manipulating power", one of them enthuses. Vanessa, the new girl on the floor who quickly fits in with the culture of rapacity, was the narrative device by which we were acquainted with the dodgy dealings that made Enron the seventh biggest company in America. "Look, sweetie," she's told on her first day, "what makes money is volatility: chaos drives high prices, high prices drive profits ... if we over-supply we get paid to take away the extra; if we under-supply, they've got to buy from us on the day – and pay top dollar."
The CEO, Kenneth Lay, walked away with $84m, though he apparently spent most of that on legal fees. "Wilful Blindness", Tuesday's second part, was virtually a two-hander between Lay, resting up at his Aspen holiday home between trial and sentencing, and his new gardener – who, it transpired, was Vanessa, not out for revenge, but there to call Lay to account, to make him face his guilt.
"Why are you being so nasty?" he asks her as she rails against Enron's brutal corporate culture. "You know where I learned nasty?" she tells him. "At your company." The next day Lay died from a heart attack.
You can cheat the people, but death's another matter entirely.
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