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Tauzin Focusing His Energy on Enron

Investigation: The GOP congressman has been aggressive in his inquiry in the firm's collapse.

January 20, 2002|GREG MILLER and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Lining the walls of Louisiana Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin's office are some of his prized hunting trophies: an owl, a wild turkey, deer and even the stuffed head of an alligator with Mardis Gras beads dangling from its teeth.

Judging by the vigor with which the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is stalking players in the Enron Corp. scandal, Tauzin would love to add some of the energy company's executives and its Andersen accountants to his wall, as well.

No member of Congress has been more aggressive in investigating Enron's collapse than Tauzin. His committee has been investigating the financial meltdown for two months. His staff has unearthed some of the most damning evidence yet, including the internal memo of an Enron vice president warning that the company was about to "implode in a wave of accounting scandals." And Tauzin has made clear that his committee is just getting started.

All of which has some in Washington scratching their heads, because there are reasons Tauzin might be expected to step into this furor very reluctantly.

His Gulf Coast district is dominated by energy companies that did business with Enron. He--like many in Washington--has taken thousands of dollars in contributions from the now-bankrupt company.

Most puzzling of all, he is a high-ranking GOP lawmaker leading the charge on a matter that has been a source of embarrassment to Republicans, especially the Bush White House.

Tauzin, 58, dismisses suggestions that he might be inclined to pull his punches, saying anyone who would suggest so doesn't understand the seriousness of the scandal, the stakes of the investigation or the populist politics of Louisiana.

"We're going to pursue this wherever it leads us," Tauzin said.

Some Democrats doubt that Tauzin will be eager to pursue the investigation wherever it leads, noting that so far he hasn't called for the White House to surrender any records of its apparently extensive contacts with Enron executives.

Many Republicans, meanwhile, are quietly pleased that Tauzin is forging ahead, shielding them from criticism that they may be soft on a company that gave generously to both parties, but was among the GOP's most lavish donors over the last 10 years.

"People are glad Tauzin is being aggressive and is out there," a House GOP leadership aide said. "We take this very seriously. We need to appear to be on top of the game. We cannot let the Democrats have the field."

Until recently, Enron was widely considered one of the glowing lights of the new economy. But the Houston-based energy trading company began to unravel last fall amid questions about its accounting practices. Ultimately, the company was forced to acknowledge that it had overstated its earnings by nearly $600 million, and it filed for bankruptcy protection Dec. 2. Thousands of Enron employees lost their jobs, and many lost their retirement savings, which were heavily invested in Enron stock.

The collapse caught the White House in its swirl because Enron was among the biggest political donors to President Bush. Also, Enron executives were consulted as the White House developed its energy plan last year, and they requested help from key administration officials as it sank into bankruptcy. The White House appears to have rebuffed those requests.

On Capitol Hill, Enron's largess was so extensive that conflicts loom everywhere. The company and its employees gave money to 51 of the 56 members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee over the last decade.

Tauzin (pronounced TOE-zan) was among them, though far from the top of the list. From 1989 to 2001, the company and its employees contributed $6,464 to him, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By contrast, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the panel's energy subcommittee, garnered $28,909 from the company.

Embarrassed by the scandal, many lawmakers have pledged to donate any Enron contributions they accepted to a fund set up for the company's laid-off workers.

But Tauzin, part of a long line of Louisiana politicians who don't embarrass easily, said he won't give the money back and that Enron was foolish if it thought it could influence him.

Tauzin got considerably more from Andersen, collecting $57,000 from 1989 to 2001. Only one member of Congress, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), got more from the accounting company during that period.

With Democrats looking for any opportunity to tar the GOP with the scandal, Tauzin can't afford to be anything short of vigorous in the investigation, experts said.

"He knows that the best defense is a good offense," said Tom Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "The last thing Republicans want to do is be put in a position of defending Enron and Andersen."

The politics of Tauzin's energy ties are more complicated than they appear, experts said. His district has one of the largest concentrations of petrochemical plants in the country, and he acknowledges that many of them did business with Enron.

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