The White House has denied it granted special favors to the Enron Corporation, a huge energy trading company that declared bankruptcy last month. A key Congressional Democrat says Enron officials may have influenced the administration's energy policy.
The collapse of Enron is one of the biggest business scandals in years in the United States. The Justice Department is investigating. So too are a number of congressional committees.
The top Democrat on one of those committees, California Congressman Henry Waxman, says there may be more than business improprieties involved. He has released a report that suggests the White House crafted its energy plan, now awaiting action in the Senate, to help the oil and gas industry in general and Enron in particular.
Congressman Waxman does not directly charge the White House with any misconduct. But when asked about the report, Presidential Spokesman Ari Fleischer immediately went on the defensive. "The allegation by Congressman Waxman that anything was put in that plan for political purposes is, of itself, a partisan waste of taxpayer money," he said. "Taxpayer money needs to be invested in an investigation of criminal wrongdoing, and that's why the President's Department of Justice is reviewing whether or not anybody at Enron or anywhere else engaged in criminal activity."
The Waxman report says that at least 17 measures contained in the White House energy plan benefited Enron, such as proposals to expand natural gas programs. Mr. Fleischer defended the plan, saying Enron and other energy companies did not get all they were seeking. "The recommendations in the president's energy plan were made because the president and the vice president believe very strongly that they are the best policies to help make America more energy independent and to reduce the likelihood, which all Americans have suffered, or many Americans have suffered, of blackouts and brownouts (shortages of electricity)," he said.
As the controversy has expanded, so too have efforts by the White House to distance itself from Enron. The corporation and its executives as a group form the single largest donor to the president's political campaigns. And Mr. Bush has acknowledged that Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay is an old friend.
All the same, administration officials stress they did not come to Enron's aid when company executives contacted them for help. Ari Fleischer disclosed Wednesday that the president's top economic advisor, alerted to the looming disaster at Enron, conducted a review back in October on the impact the company's collapse might have on the economy.
Mr. Fleischer said Larry Lindsey concluded there was no risk and thus made no recommendations to the president. Mr. Lindsey once served as a consultant to Enron, and some members of congress say he should distance himself from any administration discussions of the scandal-ridden corporation.