The former US president George Bush was among more than a thousand mourners who turned out at a memorial service for Ken Lay, the disgraced former chairman of Enron, who died last week.
The ornate Methodist church where Lay worshipped became the setting for what at times resembled a "Ken Lay is innocent" rally. Friends and family expressed their anger at his treatment by the government and the media since the collapse of Enron in 2001.
And while the service was open to the public, members of the media were banned, and police and security guards had been hired to warn away any potential protesters.
"I am angry at the way that he was treated during the last five years of his life," David Herrold, Lay's step-son, told the congregation.
Houston is a city still scarred by the bankruptcy of Enron, where thousands of employees lost their jobs and their savings and where many will never forgive Lay for the fraud which - a jury decided in May - went right to the top.
But the Bush family has done little to distance itself from Lay since his conviction on 10 counts of fraud and conspiracy, and irregularities in his personal financial affairs. George Bush Senior, who was accompanied yesterday by his wife, Barbara, was a long-standing friend and golfing partner of Lay. Last week, George W Bush, a recipient of several hundred thousand dollars in campaign funds from Enron, said Lay was "a good guy" and that he would be writing a letter of condolence to Linda Lay, his widow.
As well as family and close friends, many members of Houston's business community and charitable organisations were in the congregation for the service. Other prominent figures included James Baker, secretary of state in the administration of the first President Bush, and Drayton McLane, the owner of the Houston Astros, the baseball team whose stadium was once sponsored by, and named after, Enron.
In a moment of drama just before the service, the former Houston mayor Bob Lanier collapsed with heart pains in the aisle of the church and had to be taken to hospital.
Lay died of a heart attack while on holiday near Aspen, Colorado, in the early hours of Wednesday last week, while awaiting the sentence that was likely to put him behind bars for the rest of his life.
"I really believe that the Lord rescued Ken from this world," said Ray Phillips, Linda Lay's brother.
His death robbed federal prosecutors of the opportunity to see Lay formally punished for crimes at Enron, whose labyrinthine financial structure was used to hide the massive liabilities that consumed it.
But it also robbed Lay of the chance to clear his name on appeal, which his lawyers had been planning to do.
Bill Lawson, a baptist preacher, told the congregation: "The real Ken Lay was not the man convicted by a judge and a jury, and not the man vilified by the media." Mick Seidl, a long-time friend, said Lay "did not have a criminal bone in his body" and had been hounded by "over-zealous prosecutors".
The 1,500-seater church, whose work and refurbishments have in part been funded by Lay's own donations over more than a decade, sits back from the street in a little courtyard from which the blossoms snowed in yesterday's breeze. It is an incongruous sight in a financial district dominated by skyscrapers, and yesterday it was an oasis from the public opprobrium which has rained down on Lay since Enron went under.
Mourners argued that Lay was a good man brought down by the actions of underlings. Speakers, including his five children and step-children, spoke of his charitable giving and his strong faith. Guests were also handed copies of Lay's favourite religious writings. It was easy to see why they had resonance for a man who was bewildered by the guilty verdicts against him. One read: "We will never know our level of genuine faith until it is tested in a fierce storm." Another went: "The only way to know strong faith is to endure great trials."
Beyond the church, however, Lay has become an icon of corporate greed, with Enron symbolic of the excesses of the long stock market boom. The Enron name is gone from the Houston Astros stadium (it is Minute Maid Park now) and the skyscraper which was Enron's old headquarters has also been sold. But the buildings remain, monuments to what Lay used to call "the best company in the world".Reuse content