I can't get the question out of my mind: Who is truly to blame for Enron? I can't help feeling that Messrs. Lay, Skilling, and Fastow, as well as the folks at Andersen, have gotten a bum rap. Fortune magazine didn't name Enron the most innovative company in the country six years running because those guys played by the rules! Truth be told, we loved those guys when they were making us a pantload o' money. It was the biggest new-economy love fest of the 1990s. The Enronites were masterminds, and their paper-shredding minions had at long last gotten in on something sexy, relieved from their normal roles as green-eyeshade-wearing dullards. All was well with the world. But then our bundles of cash disappeared as fast as a bowl of Beer Nuts at a dive bar.
Sure, I know that Congress is on the case, but isn't that a little like the fox guarding the henhouse? Or, to be more precise, a roomful of foxes questioning a fellow fox? So, in the ultimate free-agent move, I have launched my own investigation: I Spy. My case: Who's to blame for Enron?
I headed for Houston on the first plane out, and after disrobing almost entirely in front of the luggage scanner, submitting to a full body search (it was the Pink Pearl eraser in my coat pocket), and reciting the new Oath of Allegiance to the FAA, I arrived at the Scene of the Crime. It was there that I discovered the awful truth, which is that the guilt for Enron is farther-reaching than a bad case of strep at an overcrowded day-care center.
Consider my interrogation of Tiffany Jo Vance, 17, the employee at the Hallmark store where Ken Lay routinely bought the birthday cards he sent to Mr. Bush. Here are her own words (which may be used against her in a court of law): "Mr. Lay came in like once in a while to get cards, which he told me were for the president of the United States. I'm all like, right. He picked out a lot of cards with cats on them and some really lame humor. I thought the president, being from Texas, would go for something with a longhorn on it, or maybe a nice lady with big hair. Now I feel terrible. Maybe if he'd sent the president a stupid cat card, none of this would have happened."
Michael "Ganesha" Rosenbaum, Nancy Temple's yoga instructor, confessed as well: "All last year, Nan seemed extra tense. Once during downward-facing-dog pose, she started to weep. Of course, I advised her to breathe. When I heard what had happened with Enron, I immediately blamed myself. I knew that I should have suggested a chakra realignment for her."
Jeff Skilling's caddy felt that he had fanned the flames of the former Enron president's ego by complimenting him on his putting. Under intense questioning, however, the caddy cracked: "The fact is, he was worse than streaky. He sucked big-time."
Everywhere I went, average people seemed relieved to acknowledge their role in the fiasco. And then it struck me. I, too, was guilty. Several years ago, I received a letter from Ken Lay chiding me for not including him in my yearly New Year's column, in which I do a clever and dazzling riff on all the big business names of the year. I made an airplane out of it and flew it into the circular file. Perhaps if I'd taken Ken's need for recognition seriously, maybe, just maybe, he wouldn't have needed to bilk thousands out of millions, or millions out of thousands — or whatever it was that he actually did to screw up (I am letting Congress search for that piece of the puzzle). But here's the thing: I walked out into an orange Houston sunset, and I felt great.
Sharing the blame is the new sharing the wealth.
This is the latest episode in The Spy's continuing saga, "Working Behind Enemy Lines." You can find the entire Spy chronicles on the Web (www.askthespy.com).
A version of this article appeared in the April 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.