Kenny Lay and I were having a drink the other day and he chatted about his resignation as CEO from Enron, America’s energy giant.
“Are you bitter?” I asked.
“Why, no. I’ve squirreled away a few bucks for a rainy day.”
“Kenny,” I asked, “how much did you squirrel?”
“Oh a few thousand dollars, give or take.”
“Give or take what?”
“A hundred million dollars.”
“So, all is well with you?”
“Well, there’s this Congressional investigation and an FBI probe coming. And come April 15, there might be a, uh, slight problem with my tax return.”
“A few dollars, give or take?” I asked.
“Right. After the boys at Arthur Anderson assembled my personal taxes for 2001, I dropped by an H&R Block kiosk at the mall and had them re-crunch the numbers for me.”
“The boys over at Anderson figured the government owes me sixty million dollars; H&R Block, on the other hand, claims I owe fifty million in back taxes and penalties to the IRS.”
“Who are you going to go with?”
“The Anderson boys. They have much greater depth than the kid over at H&R Block.”
“A kid prepared your tax return?” I asked.
“Little more than a high school senior. I asked this trainee if he knew anything about sheltering income with off-shore companies and the (expletive deleted) said that off-shore companies were usually illegal and always immoral.”
“Maybe (expletive deleted) knows something,” I said.
“Doubtful,” said the former head (but still on the board) of one of America’s most famous companies. “Any accountant who claims that something is illegal and immoral is clueless. The kid probably took a six week tax preparers’ course. He’s obviously guided by what he considers ethics.”
“Sure. I love ethics. I live for ethics. Enron funded nine universities that taught nothing but ethics.”
“If the H&R Block boys make a mistake, they will pay your penalties. Will the boys over at Arthur Anderson take care of their mistakes for you?”
“What kind of situation are we talking about?” he asked.
“The situation where thousands of employees watch their retirement income vaporize while their bosses pocket zillions before driving the company into bankruptcy. Seems to me that’s far from ethical.”
“Ethical. Shmethical. You’re talking abstractions.”
“So be specific,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, “I built Enron from nothing, and even though it’s now kaput, an average employee and I’m talking thousands of people — after bankruptcy — will have, at age 65, $8.10 a day.”
“And how much will you have?”
“A little more, give or take. But remember I started the company.”
“Give or take what?” I asked.
“$87,000.00 a day,” he said, pouring himself another drink. “But that is neither here nor there. What’s important is that I’ve provided thousands of ungrateful Enron employees with a decent retirement.”
“You can hardly buy dog food for $8.10 a day,” I said.
“Nonsense! Why, for $8.10 you can eat cake three times a day. Ding Dong cream filled chocolate cupcakes are only $5.95 for a jumbo pack at Costco. Pass the caviar.”
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