A No-Surprise Ending
I'm not surprised by the news of Kenneth L. Lay's sudden death. Nor am I surprised that death came now, less than two months after he was convicted of fraud and conspiracy for his role in Enron's downfall. In many ways, it seems almost inevitable.
After Lay was found guilty on all six charges in May, he realistically faced the rest of his life in prison, come sentencing in September. At 64, even a 10-year sentence, what many observers expected, would have pushed him two years past the average lifespan of an American male. And that's an average American male who did not gain the whole world -- at least in his estimation -- and then lose it.
There will be no facile and mean-spirited shots at the dead man here. No "he got what he deserved" or "he got off easy." I feel sympathy for his family -- whatever he was to the 30,000 former Enron employees and the thousands upon thousands of shareholders who lost their savings, he was a father and a husband as well.
But it is impossible not to think back to the Lay who sat in a witness box in a federal courthouse in Houston for five days in April and remember him as tarnished king, backed into a corner by an aggressive and righteously indignant young prosecutor, John Hueston, and responding with arrogance, anger and bile.
Co-defendant Jeffrey K. Skilling, Enron's former chief executive, cut a different figure on the witness stand with his interrogator, Sean Berkowitz. His anger could have been interpreted as passion for Enron, passion for the work of building a business that was the envy of the industry.
Lay's time on the stand, however, was a meltdown, a sideshow, an alarming glimpse into the man's dark psyche.
When I think of Lay's testimony, I can't help but remember a throwaway but powerful scene in the 1990 movie, "The Krays," a semi-biopic about the notorious Kray brothers, twins who ran a brutal criminal empire in London in the '60s. One of the older women in the film set off on a rant about London during wartime, about how the men went off to war and glory and the women were left behind to deal with the daily horrors of life in a city that was bombed to bits by the German Lutwaffe. A lifetime of hatred of men came spewing out, and she ended the scene coughing blood. Shortly after, she was dead, poisoned by her own bile.
I watched Lay on the stand and wondered how he would have handled prison. Some famous white-collar criminals, like Martha Stewart, attack prison time like one more task to be solved, one more obstacle to be surmounted. For her, prison seemed like a particularly knotty dinner seating-chart to work out.
Lay, by contrast, seemed angry without being defiant. When he was on the stand, it was as if he were saying, "I know I'm going down, and I'm going to vent."
Unlike Skilling, he did not act like a man who wanted to help his case. Instead, he seemed to willfully sabotage it. During testimony, it was revealed that Lay believed the Wall Street Journal, whose October 2001 articles helped begin Enron's downfall, had "a hate on" for Enron.
In the last months of his life, Lay -- stripped off his hundreds of millions, his many perks of privilege, his industry-wide power, his standing on the world stage -- may have had nothing left but his own hate.
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