The Passion of the Texans

Published January 20, 2006, issue of January 20, 2006.
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As the law moves in on a pair of Texans — ex-Enron boss Ken Lay and ex-House majority leader Tom DeLay — now would be a good time for anybody who has anxiety over negative stories about Jews to start squirming.

Lay, who is set to go on trial January 30 in Houston, faces seven counts of conspiracy and fraud stemming from allegations that he misled investors as Enron was spiraling toward bankruptcy. Speculation is rampant that DeLay — who already has been indicted by a grand jury in Travis County, Texas, for allegedly violating state campaign-finance laws — could find himself ensnared in the mushrooming anti-corruption probe in Washington.

Some observers, including New York Times columnist Frank Rich, already have begun to connect the dots between the two scandals. And as the legal noose around Lay and DeLay tightens, at least one parallel in their defense strategies will become increasingly clear: Both men are blaming their troubles on former Jewish allies who have confessed to crimes and agreed to cooperate with government investigators in return for lighter sentences.

Lay says he was duped by Andrew Fastow, Enron’s former chief financial officer. Fastow, who is expected to serve as a key witness in the case against Lay, pleaded guilty in 2004 to conspiring to conceal the company’s debt and stealing millions of dollars in the process.

Meanwhile DeLay has been trying for months to downplay his ties to Jack Abramoff — even before the disgraced lobbyist pleaded guilty earlier this month to mail-fraud conspiracy and tax evasion charges, and reportedly began cooperating with Justice Department officials investigating corruption on Capitol Hill. If the Texas lawmaker is to be believed, Abramoff was lying to clients when he suggested that DeLay’s office was for sale.

But don’t blame Lay and DeLay if Abramoff and Fastow come off looking like a pair of Judases in separate productions of “The Passion of the Texan.” The uncomfortable truth is that these guys make insider-trader Michael Milken look like a complex and sympathetic figure.

Milken’s defenders have cast him as a Robin Hood-type outsider forced to take risks and bend rules to help investors and businessmen break the WASP grip on Wall Street. Abramoff and Fastow can make no such claim: They were sitting at the table of power when they committed their crimes.

It is, of course, bigoted and unfair to tar Jews for the misdeeds of their co-religionists. But that’s what antisemites do — and in this case their job is easier, thanks to Abramoff, Fastow and their sycophantic supporters in the Jewish community.

Both men made their Judaism part of the story by publicly sharing some of their ill-gotten fortunes with Jewish charitable causes and then playing the religion card when the legal situation started heating up. Making matters worse, both Abramoff and Fastow found rabbis and organizations willing to take their dollars and to stand by them even after it should have been clear that the donations were tainted.

Abramoff and his supporters frequently have painted the yarmulke-clad lobbyist as a philanthropist who spent his millions bankrolling the Jewish day school that he founded. He did this while keeping afloat two kosher restaurants and supporting Toward Tradition, an organization led by Rabbi Daniel Lapin. Toward Tradition is dedicated to fostering ties between Jews and evangelical Christians. A few backers have tried to downplay Abramoff’s misdeeds, citing his support for Jewish causes and suggesting that he was the victim of liberal media bias.

Fastow was not as egregious as Abramoff in wearing his Judaism on his sleeve (or head). But like the disgraced lobbyist, Fastow assumed the macher mantle with the help of his stolen money. He chaired a major fund-raising dinner for Houston’s Holocaust museum and reportedly shared some of his booty with his local synagogue, Congregation Or Ami. When Fastow’s mounting legal problems began attracting reporters, the disgraced Enron official sent them to Or Ami’s religious leader, Rabbi Shaul Osadchey. The rabbi stood by his longtime congregant, describing Fastow as a mensch to several media outlets. These days, neither the synagogue nor the Holocaust museum is willing to discuss whether it returned any donations from Fastow and his family.

Still, despite Abramoff’s and Fastow’s heinous crimes, Enron’s collapse and the growing D.C. scandal are not stories about one bad apple corrupting the bunch. Both men were operating in corrupt systems — and while they may have been the greatest economic beneficiaries of these dirty enterprises, the men in charge were Lay and DeLay.

Enron was already developing a corrupt culture by the time Fastow showed up, as Kurt Eichenwald’s must-read account of the scandal, “Conspiracy of Fools,” makes clear. When things got worse, there were many players at various levels who were willing to lie and cheat customers, shareholders and outside financial institutions, if not steal outright from the company. So far, in addition to Fastow, 15 ex-Enron officials have pleaded guilty.

As for DeLay, he opened the door to Abramoff’s crimes and other Republican abuses with his infamous K Street Project, an attempt to turn the entire lobbying industry into a subsidiary of the GOP-controlled Congress. And as DeLay’s various ethical and legal problems suggest, the former majority leader didn’t need Abramoff to teach him how to dance around the rules in pursuit of power.

In the end, if Abramoff and Fastow stood out, it was only in their lack of restraint and the scale of their thievery. They were serious symptoms of a wider problem, not the disease itself.

Let’s just hope the blame for their crimes isn’t contagious.

Ami Eden is executive editor of the Forward.






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