Fallout from Enron bankruptcy seen as spreading worldwide

Foreign news media accuse U.S. of hypocrisy

February 03, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The world is watching the unfolding of the Enron bankruptcy and its aftershocks through local lenses of sometimes surprising hues.

The Enron affair's many tendrils have yielded sudden partisan acrimony in Britain, a revival of an old story of influence-wielding in Argentina and a hardening of attitudes about free-market capitalism, corruption and hubris in many quarters. It has even found echoes in an unrelated but resonant insurance and accounting scandal in Australia.

In the world's news media, the noisiest fallout is in Britain, where opposition legislators are demanding a formal investigation of contacts between the Labor Party of Prime Minister Tony Blair and Enron executives, saying that Enron lobbying may have won favorable policy changes for its businesses.

Through a spokesman, Blair denied last week that there was any impropriety in the government's dealings with Enron, but he acknowledged that government ministers who dealt with regulatory or energy issues met with Enron executives on four occasions dating to 1998, a year after Blair took office. A Labor Party official also acknowledged that the party had accepted about $51,000 from Enron in the form of sponsorship for events.

It was in Britain, too, that the Enron affair claimed its first high-profile victim outside the United States.

Lord Wakeham, a former energy minister with links to Enron dating to 1994, withdrew from his job as head of the Press Complaints Commission, Britain's newspaper watchdog, to devote his full energies to clearing his name.

He described his decision as "a matter of honor."

Wakeham, 69, who oversaw the privatization of British electricity during the Thatcher era of the 1980s, was a nonexecutive director of Enron and a member of its audit committee. Both positions were supposed to bolster corporate governance and actuarial probity at the company.

He flew to the United States last week to consult with lawyers and cooperate with congressional inquiries.

Enron also donated more than $1 million to Prince Charles' charity for disadvantaged youth and its executives met with him at charity dinners, the charity and St. James Palace said yesterday.

The donations to The Prince's Trust were made over eight years beginning in 1991, a spokeswoman for the trust said. They helped fund education and training programs for youngsters.

News coverage of the Enron collapse in other countries has also taken up the theme of American political probity. And in regions where American voices have publicly complained of opaque practices, political favoritism or corruption, editorial writers and columnists have avidly turned the tables and thrown Enron back at the United States as evidence of hypocrisy.

"How could all this have happened on Wall Street, the benchmark [or so Asians were told in 1997] of corporate transparency?" The Straits Times of Singapore wrote in an editorial. "The simple answer is: The U.S. government let it happen." The paper went on to note "the legalized corruption that passes for U.S. lawmaking" as a contributing factor.

The political side of the Enron story reverberated in Argentina, where the Bush family has had business interests since the mid-1980s. In an article a week ago in the daily La Nacion, a former minister of public works, Rodolfo Terragno, said he was pressed on Enron's behalf in 1988 by "a son of the vice president," who he believes was George W. Bush.

In Australia, too, the auditors are the center of local attention, because of Arthur Andersen's role in another corporate collapse. A high-level investigatory panel known as a royal commission is investigating the failure of HIH Ltd., the second-largest insurer in the country. It collapsed in March 2001, only a few months after issuing financial reports audited by Andersen that showed no signs of trouble.

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