Bush officials may have feared conflict in Enron meltdown

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The meltdown of Enron Corp. threatened broader financial problems, but administration officials chose to do nothing -- even after being reminded by Enron that the government intervened in 1998 to prevent the collapse of a big fund for wealthy investors.

Fears of a conflict of interest involving a big Bush donor may have led to the inaction, analysts suggest.

In any event, the White House should have made public the extent of the energy-trading giant's financial woes when Cabinet officials learned of them in calls from Enron executives last fall, some analysts said Monday.

Because of Enron's heavy donations to President Bush's campaigns, administration officials "were tied at the hip to Enron," said Bill Allison, an official of the private Center for Public Integrity. That made it hard to help.

'Political fallout'

"The appearance would have looked terrible," Allison said. "They felt that they couldn't act on behalf of Enron because of the political fallout."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has said that, as far as he knows, nobody at the White House was told of calls from Enron's chairman to Bush Cabinet secretaries. Fleischer said Monday he was unaware of any other contacts between Enron and White House officials, but he said Bush aides were not searching for any.

Commerce Secretary Don Evans said Sunday he had discussed calls from Enron's chairman with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who also had been contacted, and later told Andrew Card, White House chief of staff, but that Card never told the president.

Enron was the nation's seventh-biggest company in revenue, and its collapse has hurt both individual investors and big pension funds around the country. Florida's fund, for example, has lost more than $300 million. Also roiling the financial system was the impact on major banks, which had loaned billions to the company.

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