Will Congress Investigate US Agencies' Enron Ties?

Congressional Hearings May Force Public Agencies to ''Step Up''

 continue to grill private financial institutions over their roles in Enron's rise and fall. However, the investigation could soon spill from the private to the public sector, where U.S. taxpayer-financed institutions engage in a dangerous tango with Enron's overseas ambitions. These public financial institutions have doled out over $7 billion towards Enron-related projects since 1992. And some who have examined the scope and structure of Enron's overseas operations say that federal agencies, and even the World Bank, could soon face the congressional inquisitors.

At Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee for Investigations, Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) concluded a long session with a Merrill Lynch official with a warning to those financial institutions that "helped to raise the money that helped Enron to cook the books," and called upon them to "to acknowledge the problems, step up, and make the changes that are needed internally."

Levin, subcommittee ranking-member Senator Susan Collins (R-Me.), and Governmental Affairs Committee chairman Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) are leading the Senate's examination of financial institutional relationships with Enron. The public hearings have not yet touched upon Enron's considerable financial ties with government agencies, such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and U.S Export-Import Bank and the World Bank. But public exposure of these relationships seems inevitable, as the subcommittee continues its open-ended investigation.

In June, White House officials delivered thousands of documents to Lieberman's office, responding to a subpoena for Enron-related records. The subpoena included a demand for OPIC Export-Import Bank communications dating back to 1992. A March 2002 study by the Institute for Policy Studies revealed that these two federal agencies, along with the U.S. Maritime Administration and Trade and Development Agency, provided $3.4 billion in support of Enron-related projects abroad.

Case Study: Enron in Nigeria

"Enron was recognized by everybody -- from Wall Street to government to consulting to academia --as the future way that American companies would be run."

-- G. Kelly Martin, Merill Lynch, Senior Vice President

This week, senators probed a case study of how Enron used financial institutions to help, in Levin's words, "cook its books." The committee examined a barge-mounted power project near Lagos, Nigeria. The senators scrutinized Merrill Lynch's role in transferring the Nigeria project's ownership from Enron to its notorious parallel, the LJM2 partnership. Enron recorded the transfer as revenue.

"Enron was like a poisonous spider spinning a web for its own benefit, entrapping a whole host of very reputable institutions," Lieberman told G. Kelly Martin, a Merrill senior vice president. "Your entrapment was not unknowing, unwilling. The poisonous web nonetheless had some attractiveness to you."

Martin implied that his company took an interest -- which he described as a loan, and the senators described as equity -- in the Nigeria project to please an important client. "Discussions with Enron went along the lines initially of continuing to increase the business relationship," said Martin. "They needed us to do something in the business of these barges."

Most telling, perhaps, was the Merrill official's portrayal of financial institutions' strange attraction for Enron's scheme. "Enron was a very aggressive client," Martin testified. The company was "recognized by everybody in the U.S. and perhaps globally from Wall Street to government to consulting to academia as the future way that American companies would be run We were focused on working with them as a seeming industry leader."

Enron "the future way that American companies would be run" was the ultimate expression of the global economic model that the U.S. government, and later, the World Bank, has been pushing since the dawn of Reaganomics in the early 1980's. Enron's rise accompanied heavy-handed efforts by U.S. and World Bank officials to pry open developing countries' energy sectors to foreign corporate control.

"Enron has played a dirty game on us."

-- Former Nigerian President, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo

In Nigeria, as in many other countries, Enron forged a hard bargain. While the barge project changed hands from Enron to Merrill Lynch to LJM2, Enron officials hammered out a power purchase agreement.

In June 2001, Nigerian President (General) Olusegun Obasanjo railed against Enron on CNN. "Enron has played a dirty game on us. Dirty game in two ways: the price at which they have tried to sell power to us has been very exorbitant. Two, what they told us they would do, they have not done," he asserted. Ultimately, fearing Nigeria's standing among foreign investors, the government supported the barge project.

Public Backers

Enron developed the Lagos (or Egbin) barge power project, then sold its interests to AES, a global private power developer based in Virginia, in January 2001 for $255 million. Enron, however, maintained management ties to the Lagos venture through its subsidiary, Nigeria Power Holdings Ltd. Despite Enron's tough terms not to mention endemic corruption and human rights abuse in Nigeria -- the World Bank and OPIC blessed the deal with financial packages last summer.

In July 2001, the World Bank approved a $100 million loan toward Nigeria's power sector privatization, noting with approval the development of the AES/Enron power project.

A month earlier, in June 2001, OPIC president/CEO Peter S. Watson announced the approval of a $200 million political risk insurance package for the AES/Enron power plant. "This project will help Nigeria meet a critical demand for electrical power generation, and at the same time enable the Nigerian government to demonstrate to U.S. investors its commitment to provide investment opportunities," he said. "OPIC is pleased to make this important contribution to Nigeria's first independent private power project and to Nigeria's ongoing economic development." OPIC's press release emphasized the involvement of AES, not Enron.

After news of Enron's bankruptcy broke in early December 2001, Lagos State Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu reportedly called the company to voice his concerns. Enron tried to allay his fears. In a letter to Gov. Tinubu, Nigeria Power Holding Ltd. executive Yao Apsau wrote, "Contrary to popular belief, the Chapter 11 filing does not mean that Enron is out of business, but that it has entered into a court-supervised process by which it can continue to operate most of its businesses, reorganize its finances and explore various strategic, operational and financial alternatives in an orderly manner.

"Enron Nigeria Power Limited and its affiliate involved in the development of the Nigeria project are not included in the bankruptcy filing and are free to pursue the development of the Lagos IPP in the ordinary course of business," assured Mr. Apsau.

"As you are aware, we are working feverishly with you, Lagos State, ministry of power and steel, and NEPA [the soon-to-be-privatized National Electric Power Authority] to ensure the successful development of the IPP. In addition, the Enron barge project at Egbin is already being successfully operated by AES and is unlikely to be affected by Enron Corp.'s filings. Many of Enron's plants and projects overseas are also continuing their operations in the ordinary course of business."

Business as Usual

Indeed, Enron is continuing along its "ordinary course of business," and public financial institutions have not stepped away. The U.S. taxpayer-backed Inter-American Development Bank is considering new financing toward Enron's gas pipeline investments in Bolivia.

The Export Import Bank, OPIC, and other financial institutions have remained strangely silent regarding their direct involvement with Enron, but this could be the calm before the storm. Clearly these public agencies have not, as Levin has urged, stepped up and taken their fair lumps.

Jim Vallette is research director for the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C., and co-author of Enron's Pawns: How Public Institutions Bankrolled Enron's Globalization Game (March 2002), available at: http://www.seen.org

AMP Section Name:Corruption
  • 185 Corruption
  • 187 Privatization
  • 194 World Financial Institutions
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