It was barely a half-hour after the news began to circulate that Enron Corp. founder and former chairman Kenneth Lay had died of a massive coronary at his vacation home in Aspen that the predictable office jokes began."That's what they call the cardiac defense," quipped one co-worker.
"I guess his heart wasn't in it," said another.
Lay, who was staring at spending the remainder of his life in prison for his part in the massive collapse of what was once the country's seventh-largest publicly traded company, was due to be sentenced in October.
After a four-month trial in Houston Lay had been found guilty of conspiracy, securities and wire fraud stemming from the mammoth 2001 implosion of the energy-trading concern.
During his 40-year career, Lay was one of those corporate figures who, after reaching goals of what years earlier seemed little more than aspiring fantasy, came to see the other side of midnight.
He was the Webster's Unabridged definition of the American Dream, but unfortunately in Act II of his life, he morphed into a poster boy for corporate fraud.
Growing up, the Tyrone, Mo., native held a series of odd jobs, including delivering newspapers and mowing lawns to help his family make ends meet. At the University of Missouri he found his calling in economics, eventually earning a PhD. After graduation, Lay went to work for Humble Oil & Refining -- one of the companies that was merged in to what is now Exxon Mobil.
Following a stint in the Navy, Lay served as undersecretary for the Department of the Interior before he became an executive at both Florida Gas and Transco Energy in Houston. He eventually became chief executive of Houston Natural Gas, where HNG eventually merged with InterNorth of Omaha, Neb., to form Enron.
Under Lay's stewardship, the company evolved from an energy pipeline concern to a complex conglomerate trading energy futures and boasting a market cap approaching $70 billion. For his part, Lay was rewarded with salaries and bonuses in some years that exceeded $200 million.
He was so close to the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that its chief resident bestowed on him the now-famous moniker "Kenny Boy."
And just as quickly Lay's empire collapsed under a byzantine series of off-balance-sheet partnerships that masked billions in losses for investors and thousands of Enron employees who watched their life savings evaporate under a cloud of equal parts greed and financial manipulation.
The avuncular Lay -- who maintained his innocence until the end -- was supposed to sway jurors with his mild demeanor, but according to reports was often combative and irritable on the stand. I suppose staring at state-provided accommodations for the next 50 years or so will do that to you.
I'm sure there are legions of ex-Enron employees who are sharing in the rounds of morbid Ken Lay jokes, and given their situation, I'm not unsympathetic.
Ironically, Lay's final contribution may well have been the host of recently enacted corporate reforms, e.g. the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and, by proxy, the creation of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.
His gradual rise to the uppermost echelons of corporate America and subsequent free-fall, begs the question of exactly what became of the positive tenets he developed as a boy helping his struggling family survive, once he became accustomed to the corner office and freely being able to dial the president.
Sadly, it's too late to ask now.
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