Bill Press: Bush should fire Army secretary over Enron
Tribune Media Services
WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- Running for president, George W. Bush promised to restore integrity to the White House and demand the highest standard of ethics from all members of his team.
Of course, Bill Clinton made the same pledge. But, unlike Clinton, everyone expected Bush to keep his promise. He hasn't. He's lost the moral high ground by continuing to defend Army Secretary Thomas E. White, clearly the most ethically challenged of all Bush appointees.
Secretary White participated directly in the lies and mismanagement that destroyed Enron and wiped out thousands of investors and employees. He lied to Congress about the extent of his contacts with former Enron colleagues since becoming secretary. And he's used the perks of his office for personal business. That would have been enough, during the Clinton administration, for Republicans to demand an independent counsel. That should be enough for George Bush to fire him.
White was a bad choice in the first place. He had no defense-industry or military leadership experience. His sole qualification for office was being a top Enron executive. That, of course, was enough to get over 50 people important jobs in the administration. Who says Bush doesn't take care of his friends?
When nominated, White promised to bring "sound business practices" to the Pentagon. We can only hope not. Otherwise, the Pentagon could be the one filing for bankruptcy next.
Long before the giant energy company's collapse, White, as vice chairman over several divisions, was apparently running his own shell game. Enron Energy Services, which he headed, has been accused of overstating its profits by hundreds of millions of dollars over the last three years.
In August 2001, Enron employee Margaret Ceconi warned Enron's board that more than $500 million in losses were being hidden in Tom White's EES. In other words, White was lying to investors even before Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. Is this really the kind of leader we want for the U.S. Army?
White has something else in common with Lay and Skilling: He sold his own stock before the bottom fell out -- and lied about that, too. From June 13 to Oct. 30, 2001, White sold $12.1 million in Enron stock. The company filed for bankruptcy on December 2, but White insists he was not acting on inside information and had no idea what was happening inside the company. His phone logs prove just the opposite. He was, in fact, in frequent contact with Houston.
In January, White admitted to House investigators that he had 29 phone conversations with Enron employees after taking office in May. Seven of those calls were in October, when Enron first started sliding toward bankruptcy. But that's not all.
Last week, White wrote a letter to the House Governmental Reform Committee disclosing an additional 55 calls to Enron officials made from his home telephone, six of them in October -- which, White says, he simply forgot about. Who does he think he's kidding? Hard to believe you could forget 55 calls. Even harder to believe you could make a total of 84 calls to former Enron cronies, at a time when the company is falling fast, and only talk about the weather or the Astros.
Enron's not the only area where White has played fast and loose. Early this month, he commandeered an Army jet to fly himself and his wife, Susan, to Aspen to negotiate sale of their $6.5 million vacation home. Pentagon rules prohibit use of military aircraft for personal junkets. Did White forget that, too?
For his role in Enron, his lies to Congress and his abuse of office, Secretary White is an embarrassment to the Bush White House and a disgrace to the Army. If he had any sense of decency, he would resign. If he doesn't, soon, President Bush should fire him -- before he gets himself, and the administration, into any more trouble.
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