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THE NATION | THE FALL OF ENRON

Former Enron Exec Found Dead in Apparent Suicide

January 26, 2002|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS and LEE ROMNEY and DAVID STREITFELD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

HOUSTON — The Enron saga slipped from scandal to tragedy Friday as J. Clifford Baxter, a former vice chairman of the company who was said to have "complained mightily" about some of its off-the-books partnerships, was found shot dead in his car, an apparent suicide.

Baxter, 43, was one of five high-ranking Enron executives identified in a whistle-blower's letter as objecting to accounting maneuvers that ultimately pushed the company into bankruptcy. His death leaves a void for investigators who had hoped to interview Baxter in connection with several inquiries by Congress, regulators and federal agencies.

Mitch Taylor, an executive in Enron's trading operation, called Baxter a man of "extremely high integrity."

"I don't believe he was complicitous in anything that may or may not have gone on here," Taylor said. "But he was the vice chairman. It happened on his watch. I'm sure he felt horrible."

Baxter stepped down from the company in May, just seven months after winning the vice chairman's post, saying he wanted to spend more time with his wife and two school-age children.

"He left here because he was frustrated," Taylor said. "He felt he was going to be burdened with the responsibility for things that occurred but given none of the responsibility to change them."

Baxter's redbrick mansion in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land was guarded Friday by three police officers. An American flag adorned the frontdoor and the shutters were closed. Friends dropped in throughout the day, greeted with hugs.

"We are suffering the loss of our husband, father and best friend," the family said in a statement.

Last weekend, Baxter's wife, Carol, reacted angrily when approached by a reporter about the unfolding crisis.

"People are being investigated. People are being sued," Carol Baxter said outside her home.

"This is going to follow people for the rest of their lives--people who didn't do anything wrong."

Baxter's body was found by a police officer about 2:30 a.m. in a black 2002 Mercedes sedan parked near the Sweetwater Country Club, less than two miles from his home.

He suffered a single gunshot wound to the head, and a revolver was found by his side, police said. Police said he also left a suicide note, but declined to reveal its contents or say where it was found.

CNBC reported that Baxter's suicide note said he was distraught over the disintegration of Enron and the likelihood that he would have to testify against friends who worked there. The news channel said Baxter was unshaven and disheveled last week when a reporter visited his home and his Christmas tree was still standing.

A local justice of the peace ruled Baxter's death a suicide but ordered an autopsy as part of the investigation.

Baxter spent a decade at Enron during the years it morphed from a middling operator of natural gas pipelines into a "new-economy" company that placed high-tech bets through its computerized trading operation on a wide range of energy and other commodities.

Baxter zoomed up through the company in the slipstream of his good friend Jeffrey K. Skilling, who resigned as Enron's chief executive in August for unexplained personal reasons.

A former Air Force captain, Baxter cashed out $28 million in stock gains from the sale of nearly 800,000 Enron shares from 1998 to early 2001, according to an analysis by Thomson Financial/Lancer Analytics. Since then, Enron's stock price has plunged from about $81 a share, the best price Baxter commanded, to mere pennies.

Baxter and other current and former Enron executives have been sued by angry shareholders, whose investments are virtually worthless. The suits allege the executives were presenting a falsely positive view of the company's financial health to boost the stock price.

Baxter, although no longer with the company, would still have been afforded legal representation for his work with Enron, a company spokesman said.

Enron issued a terse statement Friday: "We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of our friend and colleague, Cliff Baxter. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends."

Skilling expressed sadness at Baxter's apparent suicide.

"Mr. Skilling is devastated by the loss of a very dear friend," said Judy Leon, a spokeswoman for Skilling.

Baxter was among those Enron executives mentioned in an Aug. 22 memo by Sherron S. Watkins about Enron's growing financial problems.

"Cliff Baxter complained mightily to Skilling and all who would listen about the inappropriateness of our transactions," Watkins wrote.

Last week, Skilling denied that he had ever had conversations with Baxter or other Enron officials about accounting problems at Enron.

Baxter's records had been subpoenaed by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. But as of the time of his death, Baxter had not delivered any documents, which were due by Jan. 31, according to a source close to the investigation.

Baxter was credited with helping build Enron's core trading business, which provided most of the company's revenue in 2000.

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