e-mail us


Enron collapses under the sin of avarice


New armies of angry citizens have become plaintiffs in court. They lost at least $60 billion when the energy-trading firm Enron went into bankruptcy. They include teachers and state workers in Florida who lost $335 million invested in Enron and city workers in New York City whose pension fund invested in Enron lost $109 million.

Public employees in at least 30 other states saw millions in their pension funds evaporate in the implosion of Enron.

The nation stands aghast that Arthur Andersen accountants shredded key documents, an activity against all the basic rules of ethics in every profession. And lawyers fear the worst about the Houston law firm of Vinson and Elkins, Enron’s main outside counsel during its incredible rise and fall and the most profitable law firm in Texas.

The suicide of the former vice chairman of Enron who protested its activities, J. Clifford Baxter, is almost certainly the first of countless reputations shredded and lives ruined.

Recently a businessman of moderate to conservative political views confessed his distress to me about Enron, suggesting that the always-latent distrust of corporations in America may be intensified and bring on a new wave of regulation of business.

It is not possible to predict what changes will come about from the activities of the new army of people cheated by Enron’s recklessness. But it could, and should, be profound. The regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission should be seeking creative ways in which the millions of people who were cheated can receive some type of indemnification.

While Congress will be seeking tougher controls over out-of-control companies such as Enron, the nation could profitably reevaluate the basic moral ideas involved in greed and avarice. The excessive desire for money has always been one of the seven capital sins. Christ was especially severe in denouncing those who lusted for money. Indeed Christ sounds almost extreme when he denounces the moneychangers and those who want to accumulate wealth. Christ put it bluntly: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).

The desire to get rich quickly seems now to be more a part of the culture than ever before. People are told in a thousand ways to long for riches. Legalization of gambling in almost every state is a powerful symptom of the state’s promoting the craving for unearned wealth.

The omnipresent desire for a quick accumulation of wealth may have received a setback in the scandals of Enron. At least some potential investors may be more careful. But it is not clear that it will do much to reverse the widespread desire and lust for instant fortunes obtained without labor or skill.

A review of all of the places in the Bible where the accumulation of wealth is criticized or denounced leaves no doubt in one’s mind of the perils of wealth and the dangers of being rich. God has warned and scolded the rich, spoken strongly against greed and avarice and urged a vow of poverty as the ideal.

The sprawling Enron scandal will raise the question of whether federal securities law should be stricter or better enforced or both. Millions feel that securities law should at least require that investors get full and fair disclosure of the risks.

The name of Enron has become the symbol for capitalists and traders who, because of their avarice, engage in a form of larceny. They took advantage of the deregulation of the electric industry and other loopholes to bring misery into the lives of those whom they misled.

Present federal regulations prohibit trading on inside information, selectively releasing information to some shareholders and not to others and many similar forms of double-dealing. Enron violated all these rules and more.

The public will probably soon lose interest in the scores of lawsuits filed against Enron in Houston and elsewhere. The political fallout is unpredictable, though, but could be severe. The forthcoming revelations of incredible avarice may remind people that this capital sin, like lust and lying, often has dire and inexorable consequences.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.Georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002