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USA: Congressional Panel Finds Outrageous Enron Pay Deals, Tax Evasion

by Marcy GordonAssociated Press
February 12th, 2003

Washington -- A congressional panel has uncovered "eye-popping" pay deals for Enron executives and an elaborate scheme to manipulate the failed company's taxes and accounting, the Senate Finance Committee chairman said Wednesday.

The House-Senate Joint Committee on Taxation has been combing through Enron's tax records for about a year, trying to determine whether the energy-trading company skirted tax laws. The panel is presenting its findings in a report Thursday at a Finance Committee hearing.

Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said staffers told him the report is "an absolute barn-burner."

"In addition to an eye-popping account of executive compensation, the report provides for the first time the complete story of Enron's efforts to manipulate its taxes and accounting," Grassley said at a confirmation hearing for two Bush nominees for seats on the U.S. Tax Court. "The report is very disturbing in its findings."

Details of the report were not available Wednesday.

Top Enron executives and directors received millions of dollars worth of company stock, which they sold in 2000 and 2001.

Data obtained by federal prosecutors from company computers reportedly showed Enron paid its executives huge one-time bonuses totaling $320 million as rewards for hitting stock-price targets. Investigators say the stock targets, ending in 2000, were reached at the same time Enron officials were improperly inflating company profits by hundreds of millions of dollars, buoying share prices.

A court-appointed bankruptcy examiner also has been looking into Enron's tax deals.

For examiner Neal Batson, appointed by the federal bankruptcy court in New York City after Enron's spectacular bankruptcy in December 2001, the question is whether the company violated tax rules. That would open the way for Batson, on behalf of Enron creditors, to go after assets involved in the tax deals or to sue the big banks, accounting firms and law firms that helped design them.

The twin tax probes represent a new focus of investigation following the yearlong dissection of Enron's complex web of partnerships -- used to hide more than $1 billion in debt -- by federal prosecutors and lawmakers.

Andrew Fastow, the company's former chief financial officer, was indicted in October on 78 counts of fraud, money laundering, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and other charges. He pleaded innocent and is free on $5 million bond. Justice Department prosecutors allege that he engineered several off-balance-sheet schemes and partnerships that hid debt, inflated profits and let him skim millions of dollars for himself, family and friends at shareholders' expense.

Enron's failure destroyed the retirement savings of thousands of employees and hurt individual investors and pension funds nationwide. It was the first in a series of big company scandals that shook public confidence in the stock market and the integrity of corporate America. The joint taxation committee's tax inquiry was among more than a dozen congressional investigations into Enron's collapse.

According to Enron's former top tax executive, Robert Hermann, the Houston-based company boosted its reported profits by another $1 billion or so by using tax schemes between 1995 and 2001. Hermann has defended the practices as legal.

Some experts say that even if that is the case, the complex transactions may have helped Enron paint a false picture of its financial situation and profits.

In one 1997 transaction reportedly examined by Batson's staff, Enron transferred a lease on corporate jets and other assets into a special-purpose entity. A complex series of loans and swaps of cash and stock produced big tax losses and deductions extending over several years. The deal was said to have netted Enron $66 million to add to its earnings between 1997 and 2001.

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