Enron: Making Money in the Financial World – Stock Market, Commodity Trading Scandal (2005)

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a 2005 documentary film based on the best-selling 2003 book of the same name by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, a study of one of the largest business scandals in American history. About the book:
McLean and Elkind are credited as writers of the film alongside the director, Alex Gibney. The film examines the 2001 collapse of the Enron Corporation, which resulted in criminal trials for several of the company’s top executives; it also shows the involvement of the Enron traders in the California electricity crisis. The film features interviews with McLean and Elkind, as well as former Enron executives and employees, stock analysts, reporters and the former Governor of California Gray Davis.
The film won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 78th Academy Awards in 2006. The film begins with a profile of Kenneth Lay, who founded Enron in 1985. Two years after its founding, the company becomes embroiled in scandal after two traders begin betting on the oil markets, resulting in suspiciously consistent profits. Enron’s CEO, Louis Borget, is also discovered to be diverting company money to offshore accounts. After auditors uncover their schemes, Lay encourages them to “keep making us millions”. However, the traders are fired after it is revealed that they gambled away Enron’s reserves, nearly destroying the company. After these facts are brought to light, Lay denies having any knowledge of wrongdoing. Lay hires new CEO Jeffrey Skilling, a visionary who joins Enron on the condition that they utilize mark-to-model accounting, allowing the company to book potential profits on certain projects immediately after the deals are signed…whether or not those projects turn out to be successful. This gives Enron the ability to subjectively give the appearance of being a profitable company even if it isn’t. Skilling imposes his Darwinian worldview on Enron by establishing a review committee that grades employees and annually fires the bottom fifteen percent. This creates a highly competitive and brutal working environment.
Skilling hires lieutenants who enforce his directives inside Enron, known as the “guys with spikes.” They include J. Clifford Baxter, an intelligent but manic-depressive executive; and Lou Pai, the CEO of Enron Energy Services, who is notorious for using shareholder money to feed his obsessive habit of visiting strip clubs. Pai abruptly resigns from EES with $250 million, soon after selling his stock. Despite the amount of money Pai has made, the divisions he formerly ran lost $1 billion, a fact covered up by Enron. Pai uses his money to buy a large ranch in Colorado, becoming the second-largest landowner in the state.
With its success in the bull market brought on by the dot-com bubble, Enron seeks to beguile stock market analysts by meeting their projections. Executives push up their stock prices and then cash in their multi-million dollar options. Enron also mounts a PR campaign to portray itself as profitable and stable, even though its worldwide operations are performing poorly. Elsewhere, Enron attempts to use broadband technology to deliver movies on demand, and “trade weather” like a commodity; both initiatives fail. However, using mark-to-model accounting, Enron records non-existent profits for these ventures.
Enron’s successes continue as it became one of the few Internet-related companies to survive the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, and is named as the “most admired” corporation by Fortune magazine for the sixth year running. However, Jim Chanos, an Enron investor, and Bethany McLean, a Fortune reporter, question irregularities about the company’s financial statements and stock value. Skilling responds by calling McLean “unethical”, and accusing Fortune of publishing her reporting to counteract a positive BusinessWeek piece on Enron. Three Enron executives, including CFO Andrew Fastow, meet with McLean and her Fortune editor to explain the company’s finances. Fastow creates a network of shell companies designed solely to do business with Enron, for the ostensible dual purposes of sending Enron money and hiding its increasing debt. However, Fastow has a vested financial stake in these ventures, using them to defraud Enron of tens of millions of dollars. Fastow also takes advantage of the greed of Wall Street investment banks, pressuring them into investing in his shell entities and, in effect, conduct business deals with himself.

Nikki Haley is the latest Trump Cabinet official to leave under an ethics cloud

We have no idea if her abrupt decision was somehow connected to her ethics woes. But they are substantial, and she departs with her once-spotless reputation badly tarnished. As our watchdog group has documented, Haley has, over the course of her tenure in the Trump administration, exemplified the ethical problems that have afflicted it from the president on down. Indeed, her resignation became public a day after we filed our latest of several complaints against her,

.. a disregard for our most basic ethics laws — in her case, ethics regulations governing gifts to officials and the Hatch Act limiting her political activity.

.. Haley accepted flights on private planes likely worth tens of thousands of dollars from several businesspeople who had supported her past campaigns, which could violate ethics rules and standards. In doing so, she risked creating at least the appearance that she sold access to the highest level of American foreign policy to businesses that had donated to her campaign for governor. Like Pruitt’s notorious luxury condo rental that he priced at $50 a night, far below market rates, Haley reported the value of her flights on these private jets at only hundreds of dollars apiece. That strains credulity when flights on private jets routinely cost far more.

.. many of her flights were on aircraft owned by the donors’ companies, and it is unclear whether the executives repaid the companies for the full value of the flights.

.. Haley’s obsequious performance during her resignation announcement underscored this president’s complete personal sway over his administration. She entered the job as a former adversary of Trump’s, and she showed an independent streak while serving. That was not in evidence as she praised the president, sang the unseen “genius” of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and declared that “the U.S. is respected.” The president’s disdain for ethical values, which Haley has regrettably emulated, has helped make the opposite true.

The Full-Spectrum Corruption of Donald Trump

It is a stunning turnabout. A party that once spoke with urgency and apparent conviction about the importance of ethical leadership — fidelity, honesty, honor, decency, good manners, setting a good example — has hitched its wagon to the most thoroughly and comprehensively corrupt individual who has ever been elected president. Some of the men who have been elected president have been unscrupulous in certain areas — infidelity, lying, dirty tricks, financial misdeeds — but we’ve never before had the full-spectrum corruption we see in the life of Donald Trump.

.. And the moral indictment against Mr. Trump is obvious and overwhelming. Corruption has been evident in Mr. Trump’s private and public life,

  • in how he has treated his wives,
  • in his business dealings and scams,
  • in his pathological lying and cruelty,
  • in his bullying and shamelessness,
  • in his conspiracy-mongering and appeals to the darkest impulses of Americans. (Senator Bob Corker, a Republican, refers to the president’s race-based comments as a “base stimulator.”)

Mr. Trump’s corruptions are ingrained, the result of a lifetime of habits. It was delusional to think he would change for the better once he became president.

.. Some of us who have been lifelong Republicans and previously served in Republican administrations held out a faint hope that our party would at some point say “Enough!”; that there would be some line Mr. Trump would cross, some boundary he would transgress, some norm he would shatter, some civic guardrail he would uproot, some action he would take, some scheme or scandal he would be involved in that would cause large numbers of Republicans to break with the president. No such luck. Mr. Trump’s corruptions have therefore become theirs. So far there’s been no bottom, and there may never be.

.. the Republican Party’s as-yet unbreakable attachment to Mr. Trump is coming at quite a cost. There is the rank hypocrisy, the squandered ability to venerate public character or criticize Democrats who lack it, and the damage to the white Evangelical movement, which has for the most part enthusiastically rallied to Mr. Trump and as a result has been largely discredited.

.. Mr. Trump and the Republican Party are right now the chief emblem of corruption and cynicism in American political life, of an ethic of might makes right. Dehumanizing others is fashionable and truth is relative. (“Truth isn’t truth,” in the infamous words of Mr. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.) They are stripping politics of its high purpose and nobility.

.. A warning to my Republican friends: The worst is yet to come. Thanks to the work of Robert Mueller — a distinguished public servant, not the leader of a “group of Angry Democrat Thugs” — we are going to discover deeper and deeper layers to Mr. Trump’s corruption. When we do, I expect Mr. Trump will unravel further as he feels more cornered, more desperate, more enraged; his behavior will become ever more erratic, disordered and crazed.

Most Republicans, having thrown their MAGA hats over the Trump wall, will stay with him until the end. Was a tax cut, deregulation and court appointments really worth all this?

Ehud Barak: We Must Save Israel From Its Government

For all of Israel’s great achievements in its seven decades of statehood, our country now finds its very future, identity and security severely threatened by the whims and illusions of the ultranationalist government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

.. this government has been irrational, bordering on messianic

.. The government realizes that carrying out its one-state plan must entail steps and practices that necessarily clash with Israeli and international law — which is why it has effectively declared war on

  • the Supreme Court of Israel,
  • the free press and civil society, as well as
  • the Israel Defense Forces’ ethical code.

This disrespect for the rule of law permeates other aspects of the government, too. It helps to shield the prime minister, his family and his aides from corruption investigations. Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party recently introduced legislation that would explicitly forbid the police from recommending indictments at the end of high-profile investigations.

.. The Middle East is certainly a tough neighborhood. The threats to Israel are real and none can be ignored. Our country, however, has built an “iron wall” of military and economic power that has made us into the strongest player in the region.
.. there is a broad consensus among Israelis that rests on three pillars.
  1. First and foremost, security comes before everything; every Israeli understands this.
  2. Second, the unity, solidarity and integrity of the people take priority over the unity of the land — namely, the wish to possess the entirety of our historic homeland.
  3. Third, the principles of the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which lay out a vision for a democratic Israel based on freedom, justice and peace, are the foundation of our country’s de facto constitution.
.. The entire debate, then, is actually only over the fate of the isolated settlements, fewer than 100 small communities deep in the West Bank, containing around 100,000 settlers. Even if it is not possible to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at this stage — and it probably is not — it is obvious that continued construction in those isolated settlements directly damages Israel’s vital interests.
.. Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition claims to support the three pillars of Israeli consensus but the truth is it is determinedly undermining all three.
.. He prefers a Greater Israel with an Arab majority, violence and division over a united, self-confident Israel with a solid Jewish majority
.. He sanctifies the Land of Israel before the People of Israel. And he systematically erodes Israel’s democracy and liberal norms of governance.
.. In the service of this agenda, Mr. Netanyahu elevated fake news, alternative facts and whataboutism into art forms in Hebrew, long before those terms gained any traction in English.