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TODAY’S JOLT
G.W. Bush = Ken Lay
BY SETH GITELL

THURSDAY, JANUARY 24, 2002 — Today’s papers are filled with the news of the resignation of Ken Lay, the chairman and chief executive of Enron. The reporters in Washington all want to know about President George W. Bush’s long-standing relationship with Lay and whether Lay parlayed that relationship into government help in keeping his complex energy-trading firm alive. This is, without doubt, an important question. Yet it neglects an essential fact about our president (one that nobody is talking about these days): George W. Bush is Ken Lay — or at least he was. Both profited by selling stock in their Texas-based energy companies shortly before those collapsed.

Here’s the story. Back in 1985, just about the time Bush was exiting his "young and foolish" stage, he sold one of his failing oil companies to Harken Energy, a Texas oil company. As part of the transaction — recounted in Bill Minutaglio’s 1999 biography First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty (Random House) — Bush received $600,000 in Harken shares, the title of director, and an annual consultant’s fee of between $50,000 and $120,000.

By 1988, Bush had garnered 345,000 shares of Harken. Banking on Bush’s connections, Harken won a lucrative contract to drill off the shore of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. But on June 22, 1990, Bush determined he had had enough. He cashed out 212,140 of his Harken shares at $4/share reaping a windfall of $848,560. This, writes Minutaglio, was two and a half times the original value of the stock. (The money became the funds Bush used as his original investment in the Texas Rangers — a position he subsequently leveraged into being elected Texas Governor.)

Here’s the important part. Just six weeks later, Iraq invaded Kuwait and Harken’s stock — buoyed by the potential of the Bahrain energy deal — plummeted. The sequence of events did nothing to help Bush’s reputation. Writes Minutaglio: "Allegations would eventually emerge about the timing of Bush’s sale, about whether he had advance knowledge of Harken’s significant drop in value, and the accusations would linger for at least the next nine years."

Differences, of course, exist between Bush and Lay. The Securities Exchange Commission decided ultimately, in 1993, not to bring civil or criminal charges against Bush. Governor Ann Richards did try to use the Harken mess against Bush in her unsuccessful 1994 election fight against George W. The scope of the Harken collapse was far less than that of Enron. And unlike Lay, Bush was merely a director of Harken — not its chairman.

But both used and attempted to use their political connections to financial advantage. Bush had friends in high places during the SEC inquiry. His father was president during much of it, and Richard Breeden, a Bush family ally chaired the commission during that period as well. There’s more. When it came time for Bush to pick an ambassador to oil-rich Saudi Arabia last summer, he picked not an expert in terrorism or in Islam, but Robert Jordan, an expert in oil. Jordan’s main qualification? He represented Bush in the Harken Energy dispute.

Issue Date: January 24, 2002

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