The government’s criminal probe into Enron Corp.'s collapse reached into the White House on Friday, as the Justice Department asked the president’s staff to preserve all Enron-related documents, including e-mails and records that might show staff contacts with company representatives.
The action marked the first time that the Justice Department has interceded with the White House in the Enron investigation.
Presidential spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the White House “will, of course, fully comply” with the request, made by Christopher A. Wray, the principal associate deputy attorney general.
Wray’s request asks the White House to “ensure the retention of these records,” which might shed further light on the extent of any contacts between White House officials and Enron.
The Justice Department also sent similar letters Friday to other government departments and agencies, Bush administration officials said. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, would not say how many or which agencies received the letters.
Bush aides emphasized that the request for the preservation of Enron-related documents, including e-mails, did not suggest a suspicion of criminal activity by current or former government officials.
In any criminal or civil investigation, “it’s routine to ask people to maintain documents that may become relevant down the road,” said one Bush staffer.
The General Accounting Office, the investigative agency of Congress, said this week that it would sue the White House for refusing to disclose information about the meetings of Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force. Cheney has said he and his staff met with Enron representatives on six occasions.
The White House has steadfastly spurned questions from reporters about the extent of its contacts with Enron executives, characterizing such probes as a fishing expedition.
In recent weeks, however, it has disclosed that Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill fielded telephone calls from now-ousted Enron Chairman Kenneth L. Lay.
Both Cabinet secretaries said they took no actions to help Lay, a personal friend and financial supporter of President Bush.
Wray’s request seeks documentation of White House-Enron contacts going back to Jan. 1, 1999--when Bill Clinton was president. Thus the records also could detail contacts between Enron and the Clinton White House, which would underscore the Bush administration’s contention that such contacts are not unusual.
As the dimensions of the Enron debacle have spread, the White House and Bush have found themselves increasingly on the defensive. Although there have been no specific allegations of wrongdoing, Enron’s donations to Bush’s political campaigns--totaling about $700,000 over the years--have fueled a perception that it has enjoyed special access to this White House.
In part to inoculate himself and other Republicans from the potential political fallout from the Enron controversy, Bush on Friday proposed a package of pension reforms designed to prevent a recurrence of Enron’s Dec. 2 bankruptcy, which left thousands of workers not only jobless but also holding all but worthless retirement accounts.
At the White House, the Justice Department letter was addressed to Alberto R. Gonzales, White House counsel. The president’s chief lawyer quickly circulated an “administrative alert” to White House aides, directing all staffers to comply.
The White House on Friday night released copies of Wray’s letter and Gonzales’ internal office memorandum.
Wray’s letter to Gonzales, dated Friday, notes that a Justice Department task force and the FBI are conducting a criminal investigation “of various matters relating to Enron Corp.” and adds:
“We believe that documents in the possession of the White House, its staff and employees may contain information relevant to our investigation into the financial condition of Enron and statements made by Enron employees and agents relating to its financial condition and business interests.”
Specifically, Wray is asking the White House and other agencies to preserve “all documents, electronic records and correspondence, computer records and storage devices, notes and memorandum which relate in any way to Enron’s financial condition and/or business interests, including contacts with its officers, employees, agents or other representatives and any individuals acting officially or unofficially, directly or indirectly on behalf of Enron about these matters.”
Wray asks the White House to err on the side of caution in retaining possibly relevant materials, saying:
“Although federal law imposes broad requirements for preserving documents even apart from the needs of any investigation, in the present circumstances all [underlined for emphasis] documents relating to these subjects should be preserved, even if there would be a question whether the document would be a presidential or federal record or even if its destruction might otherwise be permitted.”
Wray suggests, but does not state, that the department or the FBI eventually will want access to those records, writing:
“At this time, we are only requesting that you ensure the retention of these records.”
Gonzales’ administrative alert to White House aides says, “You are directed to comply with the Department of Justice’s request in all respects.”
Earlier Justice Departments and independent counsels sought White House documents related to the Whitewater investigation of President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra scandal.
In another Enron development Friday, lawmakers raised questions about the company’s much-anticipated internal investigation into its financial and accounting problems.
Two key congressmen complained that Herbert Winokur--a member of a panel created by Enron’s board of directors to look into the company’s collapse--is an Enron board member who led its finance committee and approved many of the transactions under review.
“Mr. Winokur is essentially investigating his own actions and approving or disapproving the resulting report,” wrote Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) in a letter Friday to William Powers, dean of the University of Texas law school.
Powers is chairman of Enron’s internal investigating committee.
Critics also have raised questions about Powers’ independence. Powers has had responsibility for law school fund-raising since he became dean in September 2000. Enron has contributed more than $50,000 to the law school since he took the post, bringing its total contributions to the law school to more than $276,000, university officials said.
But Powers downplayed suggestions of a conflict of interest.
“As with any report by a committee of a board, readers can and should evaluate the fact that it was written by people commissioned by the company,” Powers said in a statement. “Certainly the board had a right, indeed a responsibility, to find out what happened.”
The report is expected to be released over the weekend.
An Enron spokeswoman referred inquiries to an attorney representing Enron’s board of directors, who did not return a phone call.
Winokur is one of three members of the investigating panel. The other is Raymond Troubh, a New York financial consultant.
Also on Friday, congressional investigators said they expected former Enron executives Andrew S. Fastow and Michael Kopper--who headed some of the firm’s off-the-books partnerships--to appear next week at a hearing by a panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The two men are expected to plead the 5th Amendment, investigators said.
Staff writers Edmund Sanders, Josh Meyer and Richard Simon in Washington and Jeff Leeds in Houston contributed to this report.