Lawmakers eye immunity for Enron officers

Grant could aid policy, derail criminal cases

February 05, 2002|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - With House and Senate committees now planning to force Enron's former chairman, Kenneth L. Lay, to appear before them, lawmakers soon may have a tough choice to make.

Should they grant Lay immunity from prosecution to find out how his now-failed company managed to falsely overstate $1 billion in profits?

Lay, like other top Enron executives, is refusing to testify on the grounds that the hearings have taken on a "prosecutorial" tone. If lawmakers grant him immunity, they might learn more quickly what happened at Enron, and use that information to shape better public policy.

But if they don't grant immunity, the Justice Department might be able to pursue criminal convictions. For now, members of Congress appear loath to grant any sort of legal protections for Enron's managers.

"These people deserve a jail cell, not immunity," said Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat and member of the Commerce Committee, which plans to compel Lay to testify at a Feb. 12 hearing.

Lay is especially undeserving of any consideration, Cleland said. "Normally, you give immunity to the smaller fish to run the trail to the bigger fish," he said. "Here we have the biggest fish of all. I think he should be escorted to a cell, not given immunity from prosecution."

Thomas Mann, senior fellow for governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said there is nothing new about Congress' dilemma.

"Whenever there is a major scandal, particularly one that has both criminal and public policy dimensions, they have to balance the public interest," he said.

Lawmakers are "trying to get as much information on the record as quickly as possible," Mann said. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat who will chair Commerce Committee hearings on Enron, said yesterday that his panel has made no decisions about granting immunity. But he wants to subpoena Lay immediately.

"We cannot require someone to testify," he said. But "we can require them to appear."

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