White House slowly gives up its Enron contacts

Sunday, May 26, 2002

WASHINGTON -- In its handling of the Enron affair, the Bush White House is following the same technique of political damage control pursued by previous administrations -- parceling out information slowly.

In January, when Enron fever was at its height, the Bush White House said there were half a dozen Enron meetings with the administration's energy task force and several contacts with Cabinet officials as the Texas-based company was collapsing. Four months later, under subpoena from Congress, the White House finally gave up its other Enron contacts.

Covering seven pages, there were at least 60 Enron-related meetings and phone calls involving presidential aides, though the exact number is unclear because the information is vague. In addition, there were social as well as business and political contacts, with Enron representatives occasionally including chairman Kenneth Lay, present for social events from the annual Easter egg roll to a tee-ball game.

The dribbling out of information is reminiscent of the altered stories the Clinton administration kept giving Congress and the press when faced with politically embarrassing questions.

The Bush administration summary -- which congressional Democrats say raises more questions than it answers -- was released hours after a Senate panel dropped two subpoenas on the White House.

A presidential aide had "telephone communications with Enron representatives in 2001," says the summary, which doesn't say how many. Another presidential aide "had communications" with Treasury and Energy department officials on the possible impact if Enron collapsed. Again, the summary doesn't give a number.

The Bush administration's public response to Enron has a parallel in the Clinton era and earlier presidencies, says Catholic University political science professor Mark Rozell, author of a book on executive privilege.

"There is a clear pattern that White Houses of both political parties tend to withhold information when they believe it is to their strategic advantage to do so," said Rozell.

"Repeatedly administrations make the mistake of withholding information that eventually one way or another is going to come out and makes them look bad for having withheld it in the first place," he said.

Others see a different explanation

"I do not think it's a case of bad motives or purposely hiding information," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University who studies White House communications operations.

"I think it takes some while for administrations to learn how to do these kind of searches," she said. "In the Clinton administration, they ended up with basically teams of people who would work on individual issues that would gather information and make sure that it was complete."

The Bush White House -- sounding just like Clinton's -- insists it is doing everything it can to cooperate with Congress.

"We have undertaken numerous steps in the past several weeks designed to gather information responsive to the committee's request," White House counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., this week as the summary of Enron contacts was released.

White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said "the contacts that were made public in January were relevant to Enron's recent collapse. The questions being asked now are from a chairman of a Senate committee about any contact between Enron and White House officials and contacts between White House officials and other executive agency officials."

Lieberman, a potential presidential candidate, began asking the White House for Enron information in March and the news media started asking for the White House's Enron contacts in January.

Scandal veterans from the Clinton years say the Bush White House apparently has learned little from its predecessors.

"As Yogi Berra said, 'It's deja vu all over again,"' said Lanny J. Davis, former special counsel to Clinton's White House during the campaign fund-raising scandal surrounding the 1996 presidential election.

"My advice on Enron would have been since there is absolutely no evidence of any improper influence in any of those documents they should have voluntarily and proudly distributed them to every reporter in January and said 'see there's nothing there,"' says Davis.

Davis described a meeting he says he had six months ago before Enron hit with "some pretty high officials" in the Bush White House.

"I said 'Would you rather read the stories today where you can put out your own spin or would you rather read them six months from now with somebody else interpreting them. Those are your only two choices,"' he recalls saying.

"They didn't take my advice," Davis concluded.

University of North Carolina political science professor Terry Sullivan said the White House could be headed for trouble.

"When you have an Enron and an administration that has close ties to these business interests, then there are going to be lots and lots of points of contact," said Sullivan. "If you don't nail down those contacts once and for all, then you're in for a roller-coaster ride of everyday something else is coming out."

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