The Kenneth Lay Effect
Wow. We certainly received an overwhelming response to my last post which focused upon the death of Kenneth Lay and my view of it in the larger context of corporate greed. Whether you agreed with me or not, and the vast majority of you did not, your perspectives on the passing of a symbol of excess are a treasure-trove of insight into what America does and does not think about the man who raised up Enron so high and then oversaw its catastrophic fall.
I stand by what I said this morning -- that Lay didn't get off easy. I also stand by what I said in columns I wrote about Lay and his co-defendant, Jeffrey Skilling, during their trial this spring: I don't excuse or condone what they did. There is no inherent inconsistency in saying that Lay should have been, and ultimately was, held responsible for what happened at Enron and, at the same time, saying that he did not "get off easy" by dying at a relatively early age, on top of a mountain, with the feds and creditors closing in, his reputation forever in tatters and his freedom doomed.
O.J. Simpson got off easy. He plays golf every week. Former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow got off easy. The mastermind of Enron's fraud, he will end up serving a fraction of the time Jeffrey Skilling will. Ken Lay? Sorry. A guy who saw the heights and died a convict doesn't fit my definition of getting off easy -- regardless of where he took his last breaths. Had he died last July 4th, before the trial that forever marked him a felon, or on July 4th five years ago as the Enron saga was just unfolding, we all reasonably might have been able to call him lucky. All I call him today is dead. Dead and disgraced.
Look, folks. We all have different ideas about compassion and justice; about empathy and vengeance. I can dislike the man, and what he stands for, and I can feel sympathy for the victims of Enron, which I do, and still feel as though the story of Kenneth Lay's roller-coaster life and timely death is a tragedy. Ken Lay alone didn't lose all those people their jobs or their money. Alone, he didn't ruin thousands of lives. And alone, he shouldn't bear the brunt of your righteous anger about how Enron fell.
And if you are still angry now, after his death, don't take it out on Ken Lay with hatred. He can't hear you anymore. Take it out instead with your votes on the people in government who allowed it to happen. Take it out with your investment decisions upon the power brokers who run the markets who raked it all in while Enron was running hot. Or take it out on your lawyer or accountant the next time he or she suggests fudging things a little here or there. No good will ever again come out of Kenneth Lay. But there is still good that can come out of his tale.
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