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I have several persistent memories from my days covering the Enron saga. I wrote about the company’s collapse for this magazine in 2001 and cowrote a book with the whistleblower Sherron Watkins two years later, and with the passage of time, what remain in my mind aren’t the countless facts and figures involved in all the financial misdeeds but a series of human moments that together resemble a movie trailer for a classic film. You know—the one about the empire that rises to the greatest of heights, inspiring the awe and envy of all in its orbit, only to collapse spectacularly because of the greed and ambition of its leaders.

My first memory: the smokers. It was the heyday of what was once called the world’s leading energy company and then, simply, the world’s leading company. (Enron’s early history as a stable but yawn-inducing pipeline firm was mentioned only as a basis of comparison with its newer, far more glamorous incarnation.) In the mid-nineties, on any given trip to downtown Houston, I would see a handful of employees gathered by the entrances to the Enron building—that is, before there were two Enron buildings, then no Enron buildings. Those workers—executives, clerks, assistants, whoever—were huffing and puffing on cigarettes, seemingly taking no pleasure from the act, apparently desperate to get back to work inside the smoke-free skyscraper. Enron was all about being on the cutting edge, and smoking was so twentieth century. This was, of course, well before indoor smoking bans became routine; Enron made clear to everyone that it cared about the health and well-being of its employees. Up to a point. 

But it was also true that if you were seen outside smoking, you were regarded as a weak-willed loser, and being a loser was the worst thing possible at Enron. People were leaving the best law firms, the best trading firms, the best fusty corporate banks to work there, because Enron represented the Houston ethos on steroids, a postmodern wildcatter’s dream. It was, supposedly, a place where you could try out just about any idea—streaming video, betting on weather futures, inventing a new currency—and get really rich while you were at it. All you had to do was work impossible hours and slit the throat of the person one Aeron chair over. Metaphorically, of course.

Next mental jump cut: December 2, 2001. Enron had declared bankruptcy—the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history at that point, with $63.4 billion in assets vaporized. Even before the collapse, 2001 had been rough for Houston; the company’s fall provided a grim punctuation mark to an already dark year. Before the 9/11 attacks, Andrea Yates had drowned her five children in a Clear Lake bathtub and Tropical Storm Allison had provided a preview of the devastating floods caused by Hurricane Harvey sixteen years later. The TV cameras recorded Enron’s fall for posterity: thousands of people making their exits with their belongings in cardboard boxes, their savings decimated, their designer office chairs doubling as dollies. There was a lot of weeping on camera.  

Later came May 26, 2006, when a jury found Enron CEOs Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay guilty of fraud and conspiracy. The various trials—this one lasted 56 days—were a mesmerizing high-stakes reality show. I had lingered in the courtroom after almost everyone else had cleared out, only to spy Lay and his family just in front of the defendants’ table. Everyone had gathered in a tight circle around him, an occasional sob escaping from somewhere deep within. When they finally pulled apart, I caught a glimpse of Lay’s face; his expression was that of a man who had gambled it all away, a big-time loser. His complexion was a sickening, pale gray pallor that presaged his death just a few weeks later.   

Looking back, I see how easily this story could be turned into a Netflix limited series. The characters were archetypal: You had a striving if somewhat bumbling Midwesterner (Lay), who brought in a messianic McKinsey guru (Skilling), who elbowed out the rock-solid numbers guy, Rich Kinder, while converting a company that actually made something into a company that was perpetually betting on the come while posting made-up numbers in the interim. There was a femme fatale: Skilling’s golden-girl nemesis Rebecca Mark, whose efforts to construct a massive power plant in India never quite kept the lights on. There was fast-talking Andy Fastow, a CFO with a debatable interest in accurately balancing the books. And there was Watkins, the wide-eyed whistleblower who, dismissed as a naif by her peers, came out on top. 

The characters in this drama were larger than life in the Texas vein, but they lacked the roguish charm of the wildcatters of old, that quality that could make you forgive all. Yes, there were motorcycle races in the desert and Porsche Carreras and River Oaks McMansions, along with ill-advised love affairs and stiletto-in-the-back corporate intrigue. But in the end the Enron villains weren’t that much fun. They were just rich. And arrogant.

That Kinder emerged triumphant from the flames and became the biggest player in Houston because he never forgot the value of real assets—well, that should have been the big takeaway from the whole sordid mess. But it wasn’t, of course. Enron’s worst miscreants got jail sentences, and some, such as Skilling and Fastow, even served time. But the national financial catastrophes that followed were built on similarly vaporous business models and saw few just deserts meted out. The 2008 financial crisis, for instance, led to only a handful of perp walks and far fewer prosecutions. 

What won out was the ethos of the bad guys—the bullies who set the tone at Enron and believed that you needed nothing more than a sexy, paradigm-shattering idea to sell to the chumps whose money was there for the taking. It’s not too hard to draw a straight line from Enron’s corporate culture to the fraudulent blood-testing company Theranos, or the collapse of the crypto darling FTX, or the rise of a CEO who mendaciously surfed his way through multiple corporate bankruptcies to land in the White House. 

Finally, I remember Fastow’s apology. After testifying against Lay and Skilling and serving five years in prison, he returned to Houston. His religious faith required him to atone, which he did, at the local Jewish community center, in front of a crowd of mostly older folks who listened raptly. By then, Fastow’s hair had turned from black to gray, and his boyish swagger seemed to be in mothballs. In fact, Fastow started out in a cold sweat, but like any good performer he rallied, winning over the audience with a practiced humility. By the end they rewarded him with generous applause, as if everything were forgiven, and forgotten.  

And soon enough, it was.

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Fall (and Rise) of Enron.” Subscribe today.