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Unlock the Enron Vault

November 11, 2002

The civil trial of Enron has sent motions flying around the courtroom, including one by the corporation to keep documents describing its scandal-ridden collapse locked in a vault. That makes about as much sense as Lewis Carroll writing that Alice fell into a rabbit's hole and then refusing to tell readers what happened when she bumped into the Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter and Queen of Hearts.

Employees and investors have a right to know what happened after their time, money and trust were sucked into the black hole created by Enron's implosion. So do Enron business partners and competitors burned by the corporate scandal, not to mention public policy makers and historians. Journalists too would benefit from studying the estimated 20 million pages of documents that a shareholder lawsuit is expected to generate.

The paper trail would provide needed insight into how the fifth-largest company on the Fortune 500 tumbled into the second-largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history. It's a tale bound to be as compelling and surreal as Alice's journey. But it won't be told if Enron executives get their way and a U.S. district judge in Houston agrees to keep the company's documents under lock.

Enron insiders profited from the secrecy that shrouded their actions from shareholders and regulators. The resulting scandal sparked an unprecedented crisis of confidence in public financial markets. Now it's time for Enron's past business dealings to be exposed. It's anyone's guess as to what will be uncovered -- perhaps a hookah-smoking accountant ginning up false profits?

Investors, with support from several media organizations, are asking the federal judge to permit shareholders' attorneys to release many of the Enron documents to the public. The University of California, which lost $144.9 million on Enron investments, is acting as lead plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by investors who together lost more than $25 billion in Enron stocks and bonds.

Investors want the court to let their attorneys determine which documents are open to public scrutiny. The exceptions would be information that a judge agrees Enron has a right to keep private for narrow proprietary or confidentiality reasons.

Enron is lobbying to have all the documents dumped into a windowless vault. Plaintiffs would be forced to argue for the release of individual pieces of paper. Even curiouser, the company argues that disseminating documents would subject defendants "to further annoyance, embarrassment and oppression" -- even though many of these documents already have been released to government agencies delving into Enron's meltdown.

Enron's penchant for secrecy has already burned the public badly. The judge should side with investors, the public, policymakers and others who would benefit from bringing Enron's inner workings to light.

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