The Enron Scandal Grazes Another Bush in Florida
The Enron Scandal Grazes Another Bush in Florida
LESLIE WAYNE . NY Times . 27 january 2002
The Enron (news/quote) scandal, which has become the consuming interest in Washington and around the country, is starting to have a particular resonance in Florida, where it is touching another Bush: Governor Jeb Bush.
Florida's state pension fund lost $335 million from its Enron holdings. Enron has spread lavish campaign donations on local politicians, including Mr. Bush. Earlier this month, Mr. Bush startled some by holding a fundraiser at the Houston home of a former Enron executive. Florida is also home to thousands of Enron investors and retired employees, who have seen their Enron shares become worthless.
Yet as these events unfold, Mr. Bush has deftly sidestepped this political minefield, avoiding, at least for the moment, any negative association with Enron.
"Both parties are holding their breath right now," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida at Tampa. "Both are scared as rabbits that Enron really has the potential to affect things here the Democrats are worried it won't have an impact and the Republicans are worried it will."
Mr. Bush particularly has been able to steer clear so far of the enormous damage to the state employees' pension fund, which lost more than any other public pension fund. Almost until Enron collapsed, the Florida fund continued to pour money into Enron stock. As governor, Mr. Bush is one of the fund's three trustees, although the fund has said that Mr. Bush never ordered the purchase of Enron shares or the hiring of the money manager who did.
"You've got to credit Jeb Bush," said Richard Scher, professor of political science at the University of Florida at Gainesville. "He's been wonderful in keeping the issue quiet. Nothing has been coming out. He's been very shrewd in how he's handled it politically and lucky the legislature is in session and drawing attention away. The Enron Florida angle has not come home to roost yet."
Even Mr. Bush's decision to travel to Houston and raise money on Jan. 17 at the home of Richard Kinder, a former Enron president, has yielded no political advantage for Democrats.
"Jeb Bush showed complete insensitivity and arrogance by doing the fundraiser at the former Enron president's home last week," said Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic party. "It raises questions as to what links he might have with Enron. He's drawn attention to himself with it. But if any of this sticks to him, who knows?"
To some extent, how Enron affects Mr. Bush may also depend on whether the scandal taints President Bush.
"He is the president's brother and, to some, they are always stuck together at the hip with glue," said Ms. MacManus, the political science professor. "Democrats would love to link the two together if something bad happens to one of them."
In his recent state of the state address, Governor Bush avoided any mention of Enron, and Karen Unger, his 2002 gubernatorial campaign manager, says the intention is to keep it that way. "Enron is not a partisan issue," she said. "It's not much of a campaign story."
Ms. Unger said Mr. Bush would "focus on his record of accomplishments and on issues that Floridians are concerned about." Ms. Unger also said Mr. Bush "saw no problem" in the Houston fundraiser since the event's host, Mr. Kinder, was no longer an Enron employee, having left in 1996 to form his own energy company.
But the way Enron spread money around the state to gain support in the legislature for its plan never enacted to deregulate the local electricity market and build more power plants is beginning to gain attention. Starting in 1995, Enron began to give the maximum $500 donation to many candidates, giving a total of $154,425 in the key 1996 and 1998 state house races, with over 80 percent of the money going to Republicans. Mr. Bush's 1998 gubernatorial campaign received $6,500 from Enron, including $1,000 from the former chief executive, Kenneth L. Lay, and his wife.
"Enron was a big behind-the- scenes player in the push to deregulate Florida's electrical markets," said Holly Binns, a spokeswoman for the Florida Public Interest Research Group, an environmental organization.
"Were there any specific connections between Enron and Governor Bush? You cannot tell for sure. But I would be extremely surprised if the level of contributions by Enron to the national Republican party and to President Bush did not provide access to Governor Bush."
For many Floridians, Enron's most disturbing impact has been the massive losses suffered by the Florida State Board of Administration's $123 billion pension fund, one of the largest public employee funds. The fund lost $325 million from its 9.1 million Enron shares, and $9 million from Enron bonds. It is one of several public pension funds that suffered multimillion-dollar losses from their Enron holdings.
As Enron's problems surfaced, the state fund, under the advice of one of its money managers, Alliance Capital Management (news/quote), continued to buy the company's shares.
Last October, after Enron announced $1.2 billion in losses and the Securities and Exchange Commission opened its investigation, the fund bought $7.1 million more of Enron stock. After Enron's chief financial officer, Andrew S. Fastow, was ousted on Oct. 24, the fund bought $16.1 million. When Enron announced last November that it had overstated its profits, the fund bought still another $11.7 million.
Having bought shares for as much as about $80 in the past, the fund, as it continued buying, rode the stock down from $43 to 28 cents a share in the two months before Enron's bankruptcy filing.
On Nov. 30, just days before Enron's bankruptcy filing, the Florida fund sold 7.6 million shares for 28 cents each getting just $2.1 million for its investments.
Alliance Capital was one of 60 outside money managers handling portions of the fund. Each money manager has broad discretion, under the supervision of the fund's Tallahassee staff.
Currently the Florida pension fund is suing Enron over the losses and has said it might sue Alliance as well. Fund managers say they are troubled that they were never told that a top Alliance executive, Frank Savage, is a member of Enron's board.
Florida's pension fund managers say that Alliance, the fund's manager of large-capitalization growth stocks, was repeatedly questioned by the fund's staff about Enron as its shares continued to slide. A spokesman for Alliance Capital, John Meyer, declined to comment on the matter yesterday.
At no time, however, was Governor Bush a part of these discussions: as a trustee, Mr. Bush does not get into the details of specific investments, but instead oversees the fund's general policies and direction, said Coleman Stipanovich, deputy executive director of the fund.
"We had a fair amount of discussions with Alliance about what was happening with our Enron shares," Mr. Stipanovich said. "There were plenty of red flags and we would talk about them. But Alliance ignored the red flags and relied way too much on the accountants and their auditor's reports." In the end, he said, the fund fired Alliance as one of its money managers.
Whether these financial losses will cost Mr. Bush some political capital remains to be seen. "The Enron issue is right out there to be seized on," said Mr. Scher, the political science professor. "But no one has done anything with it yet."