“How long was he in the slammer?” asked the seventy-ish woman squeezed into the folding chair next to mine. We were sitting in a packed, windowless room at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center in Houston a weekend or so ago, where for a mere $10 it was possible to spend a late Sunday afternoon hearing one of the most notorious criminals of the Enron scandal speak on the unlikely—for him—topic of Jewish Ethics. Andy Fastow had, in fact, spent six years in prison for securities fraud, and now the silver-haired 54-year-old sat alone and unrecognized on a bench in a corner, his head kept low and his body hunched over. At one point, I saw Enron’s former CFO anxiously wipe his brow, which, considering that Fastow once successfully bullied and bested the country’s most powerful bankers—and later bracingly testified against CEO Jeff Skilling and President Ken Lay—was pretty weird. This was, after all, just an audience of mostly elderly members of Houston’s Jewish community. Who cared?
A lot of people, it would seem. Fastow has been traveling the country since completing his prison sentence in 2011, lecturing on how easy it can be to adapt to situational ethics, to fall in love with legal loopholes, to do the right and wrong thing at pretty much the same time—like making a company look healthy and vital to the public (and the shareholders) while it is slowly, and then speedily, going down the tubes. He has been a speaker at the United Nations’ Principles of Responsible Management Education Conference, and the FBI’s Advanced Financial Crimes Seminar, among many others, actions that give the impression that he is somehow on the comeback trail, like Hugh Grant explaining himself to Jay Leno. Offering the meaningless public apology is certainly a well-worn page in the PR playbook, so why shouldn’t Fastow, who has a modest day job working as a researcher/document reviewer for a local law firm, join the crowd of the publicly contrite?
But this presentation felt different from the beginning. This was no corporate confab. Fastow, who had been an active member of his temple before his incarceration and had studied the Talmud while he was in prison, was speaking to a crowd of roughly 100 people who were usually more comfortable with intellectual debates on the ethics of the death penalty or women’s reproductive rights—upcoming topics in this ethics series the JCC was hosting—than hearing a painful apology from one of their own. Indeed, the rabbi who introduced Fastow mentioned that she had received numerous complaints for including Fastow in the program. But his appearance, she explained, was important because a) he had taken full responsibility for his actions and was continuing to ask for forgiveness from those he has harmed, and b) we should all think about what it means to practice Teshuvah—to return to God, and one’s better nature, by actively working to become a better person. “The wisest person learns from somebody else,” the rabbi added in a tone that suggested no one should pitch the first stone without at least giving Fastow a hearing.
Fastow had a lot to apologize for, of course. After Enron imploded at the end of 2001, employees and shareholders lost their life savings. Mortgages couldn’t be paid, children couldn’t go to college, comfortable retirements vanished, any number of hopes and dreams were dashed. People died—of stress-induced heart attacks, of suicide. It was certainly enough to keep a truly sorry person from ever sleeping very well at night.
I haven’t a clue how well or not Fastow sleeps at night, but the man at the podium in this cramped, windowless room at the JCC represented a severe departure from the Fastow I’d reported on fifteen years ago. He seemed reduced: older, affectless, and slightly annoyed at finding himself so lost. He was a man trying to put himself back together again without his familiar tools, including that famous bratty swagger. Arrogance had been Fastow’s calling card during Enron’s heyday, and like his boss Jeff Skilling, he could be a merciless bully toward anyone who showed any sign of weakness or, for that matter, skepticism toward the Enron Way. Even during the early days of the collapse, Fastow held firm to his Master of the Universe mores: “I don’t care what you say about the company,” he cracked to Fortune writer Bethany McLean, who was investigating Enron’s baseless earnings by late 2000, “Just don’t make me look bad.” (McLean would go on to write the book Smartest Guys in the Room with Texas Monthly alum Peter Elkind.)
Fastow opened with what Google informed me was his usual icebreaker: Asking him to speak on ethics, he said, was like asking “Kim Kardashian to talk to your daughters about chastity.” But he didn’t look or sound like Chris Rock gleefully milking a joke. His voice was as flat as the Houston terrain as he went on to acknowledge what everyone in the crowd knew: that he had become a pariah, and his current speaking invitations came not because he had been a gifted executive—Fastow made the cover of CFO Magazine when they’d chosen him CFO of the Year in the good old days—but because he had fallen so far. Once allergic to any challenge, he now encouraged people to ask him anything “I doubt there’s a question that could embarrass me at this point in my life,” Fastow admitted. He even offered his cell number in case someone wanted to text him questions.
An older man close to the front raised his hand and asked the obvious: Why was he giving this talk?
Fastow looked down for a moment, seeming to search for something on the ground. He was ashamed of what he had done, he said. “I apologize.” He was remorseful without being emotional, and it passed through my mind that Fastow had agreed to take his medicine—but he hadn’t agreed to like it.
And part of taking that medicine was swallowing the pill in front of this particular group. Judaism can be excruciatingly personal, yet Fastow had shamed his community with his sins, and now he had to demonstrate that he was on the path to righteous behavior. Imagine apologizing to your entire extended family for irrevocably staining its reputation. Fastow would probably rather have lectured ten million fraud investigators.
Occasionally, a hint of his old defensiveness surfaced. He asserted that Enron had been a real company at one time, not, as it is often described nowadays, as something closer to a virtual corporation. It had promoted wind power and on-demand entertainment programming way ahead of its time. He claimed that big banks were still guilty of doing what Enron had done—i.e. hiding debts—but he wasn’t exhuming an excuse as much as he was marveling at how little has changed. Fastow also got in a small dig when he reminded his audience that his previous bosses had at one point tried to pin the whole disaster on him. “Skilling and Lay said they didn’t know what was going on, which proved to be a very bad strategy,” Fastow noted acridly. He also reminded the audience that he alone among the top executives had never sold his stock. And, he is still pretty much alone when it comes to public apologies.
Mostly, however, Fastow gave examples of how easy it can be for anyone to lose his or her moral compass. Again, not exactly an excuse, more of an explanation. He said he had once been asked to speak to an ethics class at a Colorado college, and the students at first were outraged when he told them their school had misrepresented the size of its debt. But, once the students realized they’d have to pay higher tuition to correct the problem—to do the right thing—they all started backpedaling.
And what about tax deductions? Didn’t everybody in the JCC crowd try to fudge just a little? Some things may be legal but not exactly ethical, Fastow noted. Or, as he put it in answer to another audience question about his own ethics, “It is possible to follow every Commandment and still be a reprehensible person.” His voice broke for the first and only time when he talked about how much he had hurt his parents, his wife, and his children. He was luckier than most who had made a mess of their lives; his wife and his children had remained loyal, and he was no longer behind bars. “I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I could have spent the rest of my life in prison and I didn’t,” Fastow said.
Nearing the end of the hour-long talk, Fastow talked about how he had explained his guilt to his oldest son. He and his wife had told the boy he could get his license in a year if he promised never to drink and drive. “Of course,” his son said, wasting no time agreeing. Ah, Fastow countered, but what if he went to a party and a friend offered him a pill that would make him drunk? Would he do it? It wouldn’t be as if he was actually breaking his parents’ rule.
“Of course not,” his son answered.
Fastow looked down again. “I was the kid with the tablets,” he said. “What he understood at sixteen years old took me 45 years to get.”
Then someone asked, “Where do you go from here?” For just a second, Fastow allowed himself a trace of his old smirk. “I’m going for a drink,” he said.
The speech ended, and the crowd applauded politely, moving toward the exit, Fastow following in their wake with the rabbi. “He’s probably got a lot of money socked away,” the woman next to me said.
Here, I thought, was the difference between redemption and repentance. One has an end point; the other doesn’t. It looks like Andy Fastow has his work cut out for him.