Remedy for Enron’s Moral Anorexia

by Lisa Martinovic

[Note to Readers: The San Francisco Chronicle published this piece on March 17, 2002. The avatars of greed on Wall Street–and those who failed to regulate them–ought to get the same treatment I advised for Enron, et al.]

Now that Enron has been shunted off the front pages and left to squirm under Congressional microscopes, it’s time to rethink how our judicial system can most effectively respond to white collar criminals who consciously—or through the convenience of willful ignorance— inflict so much harm on so many.

Given a government whose tax, banking and regulatory codes are in no small measure authored by Fortune 500 operatives, it will be a miracle if the corporate perps don’t all vanish like white rabbits down ready-made offshore loopholes. But if there’s a shred of integrity left in our republic, eventually some of the key players will be found criminally liable, not merely guilty of reprehensible business practices. And when that time comes, we need be as creative with our punishment as they were with their accounting practices.

While the nation waits for the Justice Department to cough up indictments and the SEC to grow teeth, it’s safe to say that, over the past few months, outrage has been the preponderant response to every new revelation of evidence shredding, debt concealing, energy supply manipulating and political favor dispensing in the epic spectacle that was Enron. But before we scream off with their heads, it’s worth considering that most people who do evil things are not inherently evil: they are sick

And greed is but one manifestation of the disease we understand as addiction. Anyone who devotes their life to the maniacal pursuit of profit uber alles— irrespective of who gets mangled in their wake—is psychologically impaired, to say the least. You cannot cripple the financial lives and futures of people who placed their trust in you without having abandoned your own moral center (presuming you had one to begin with).

Should you doubt the perversity of their intentions, recall that these were the same men who named their shell corporations Raptor (homage to a bird of prey or “one who seizes by force”; tellingly, the root of the word is rape), and Condor, a type of vulture, “a person or thing that preys greedily or unscrupulously.” And, in the case of Enron, that creature did not feast on carrion, but on the still-pulsating viscera of its employees and shareholders—a more than symbolic act of cannibalism.

Seen in this light, Enron’s corporate malefactors can rightly be viewed as wealth-and-power addicts who need help just as desperately as any stark raving crackhead.

This is not for a moment to suggest that the Enron-Anderson cabal escape jail time. On the contrary. Much as judges remand drunk drivers to AA, so, too, should the prison sentences of felonious executives include mandatory participation in an applicable 12-step program such as Debtors Anonymous. With the support of fellow addicts, they would learn that insatiable greed usually masks core insecurity and scarcity issues. Left untreated, these psychic wounds can lead to the moral anorexia that characterizes a life of corporate crime. Fortunately, given enough years practicing spiritual surrender and humble self-scrutiny, most people can been restored to reason and eventually return to polite society to serve some useful purpose.

Essential to this transformation is the making of amends to those that the addict has harmed: economic restitution for the human casualties is the obvious first step. In the case of Enron, there are enough injured parties to constitute numerous class-action lawsuits. And while I fully support the vigorous prosecution of these claims, and the recouping of as many pension funds and severance packages as possible, we can do more to vaccinate society against the spread of Enronitis.

White-collar criminals who ravage millions of lives at the stroke of an accounting pencil need to face their victims, listen to their stories and yes, feel their pain. Picture a prison, somewhere in Texas, its visiting area overflowing with former Enron employees and their families anticipating a good long talk with Messrs. Lay, Fastow and Skilling. Perhaps these sessions could be televised so all the world might bear witness to the consequences of executive hubris.

Which naturally invites us to move up the food chain and bring justice—and, ultimately, one hopes, healing—to those who drank deep at the beast’s tainted trough: our Senators, regulators, and the squatters in the White House. Truth is: whether it’s cocaine trafficking, insider trading or influence peddling, criminal behavior is an outgrowth of some form of psychopathology that begs for treatment just as fiercely as it demands jail time. And in a just world—the world we must now create—no one would be able to buy their way out of either.