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.

By Frank Ahrens |  July 5, 2006; 2:53 PM ET  | Category:  Dispatches
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I said "he got off easy". You're right, it is a shameful and facile thing to say.

I just can't help thinking about all those men and women whose lives were literally ruined. It is not so easy to find a job when you're pushing 60 which is what I saw testified to on TV during the Enron mess. And all those pensions are gone. Horrible.

The thing is....he lied and cheated. And then didn't even have the grace to admit it and apoligize. Say what you want about someone like Duke Cunningham..at least he owned up.

Posted by: Celeste Johnson | July 5, 2006 03:38 PM

I agree with the above criticism of the "aggresive and righteously indignant" prosecutor. He should feel complicit in the death of Ken Lay, although he will undoubtedly have no such feelings, as cold-blooded as these scaly legal snakes are. They care only for their own fame and political advancement. Personally, I will never assist them in their foul work.

A lawyer once said that there is a fine line between the criminal and the attorney.

Posted by: J Molay | July 5, 2006 04:54 PM

I didn't read "aggressive and righteously indignant" as criticism, but as praise. Good for the prosecutor, Ken Lay deserved the examination he received.

I'm sorry for the Lay family, but this is what you might call a timely death. He probably had all his grandkids out there for a final 4th. He couldn't cope with losing his family, let alone his ill-gotten riches and prestige. Really, he brought it all on himself. Tragic, tragic, tragic.

Posted by: K Parr | July 5, 2006 05:59 PM

Frank: I mostly agree with your comments, but something tells me that the Lay home in "Old Snowmass near Aspen" would be a HUGE perk for us average folk.

Posted by: Kim | July 5, 2006 09:06 PM

Aren't there enough people in the Bush family and the Cheney circle of friends with the proper intelligence connections to have provided Ken Lay with another identity? Perhaps he's on a island somewhere, sipping a margarita.

Posted by: skeptical | July 5, 2006 10:25 PM

First you say, "There will be no facile and mean-spirited shots at the dead man here."

Then you follow up with comments like "Lay's time on the stand. . .was. . .an alarming glimpse into the man's dark psyche" and "Lay. . .may have had nothing left but his own hate."

Good thing you decided not to be mean spirited - I would hate to see what additional venom might have spilled forth.

Posted by: B | July 6, 2006 12:13 AM

Hi, B:

Thanks for the cleverly sarcastic observation...it made me laugh. To elaborate: I think it's fair to comment on what I saw from Lay on the stand--some dark personal characteristics, ugliness of word and deed, anger--and at the same time take no joy in his death. And, indeed, to feel sympathy for his family. What I'm striving for is fair, sometimes-tough, sometimes-provocative but hopefully always civil, decent comment. Thanks for reading.

Posted by: Frank Ahrens | July 6, 2006 02:55 PM

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