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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cronies in Arms

In February 2001 Enron presented an imposing facade, but insiders knew better: They were desperately struggling to keep their Ponzi scheme going. When one top executive learned of millions in further losses, his e-mailed response summed up the whole strategy: "Close a bigger deal. Hide the loss before the 1Q."

The strategy worked. Enron collapsed, but not before insiders made off with nearly $1 billion. The sender of that blunt e-mail sold $12 million in stocks just before they became worthless. And now he's secretary of the Army.

Vice President Dick Cheney vehemently denies that talk of war, just weeks before the midterm elections, is designed to divert attention from other matters. But in that case he won't object if I point out that the tide of corporate scandal is still rising, and lapping ever closer to his feet.

An article in Monday's Wall Street Journal confirmed what some of us have long argued: Market manipulation by energy companies -- probably the same companies that wrote Cheney's energy plan, though he has defied a court order to release task force records -- played a key role in California's electricity crisis. And new evidence indicates that Cheney's handpicked Army secretary was a corporate evildoer.

Cheney supposedly chose Thomas White for his business expertise. But when it became apparent that the Enron division he ran was a money-losing fraud, the story changed. We were told that White was an amiable guy who had no idea what was actually going on, that his colleagues referred to him behind his back as "Mr. Magoo." Just the man to run the Army in a two-front Middle Eastern war, right?

But he was no Magoo. Jason Leopold, a reporter writing a book about California's crisis, has acquired Enron documents that show White was fully aware of what his division was up to. Leopold reported his findings in the online magazine Salon and has graciously shared his evidence with me. It's quite damning.

The biggest of several deals that allowed White to "hide the loss" -- a deal in which the documents show him intimately involved -- was a 15-year contract to supply electricity and natural gas to the Indiana pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. Any future returns from the deal were purely hypothetical. Indeed, the contract assumed a deregulated electricity market, which didn't yet exist in Indiana. Yet without delivering a single watt of power -- and having paid cash up front to Lilly, not the other way around -- White's division immediately booked a multimillion-dollar profit.

Was this legal? There are certain cases in which companies are allowed to use "mark to market" accounting, in which they count chickens before they are hatched -- but normally this requires the existence of a market in unhatched eggs, that is, a forward market in which you can buy or sell today the promise to deliver goods at some future date. There were no forward markets in the services Enron promised to provide; extremely optimistic numbers were simply conjured up out of thin air, then reported as if they were real, current earnings. And even if this was somehow legal, it was grossly unethical.

If outsiders had known Enron's true financial position when White sent that e-mail, the stock price would have plummeted. By maintaining the illusion of success, insiders like White were able to sell their stock at good prices to naive victims -- people like their own employees, or the Florida state workers whose pension fund invested $300 million in Enron during the company's final months. As Fortune's recent story on corporate scandal put it: "You bought. They sold."

It was crony capitalism at its worst. What kind of administration would keep White in office?

A story in last week's New York Times may shed light on that question. It concerned another company that sold a division, then declared that its employees had "resigned," allowing it to confiscate their pensions.

Yet this company did exactly the opposite when its former CEO resigned, changing the terms of his contract so that he could claim full retirement benefits; the company took an $8.5 million charge against earnings to reflect the cost of its parting gift to this one individual. Only the little people get shafted.

The other company is named Halliburton. The object of its generosity was Dick Cheney.

Paul Krugman is a columnist for The New York Times, where this comment first appeared.