Another Recusal in Houston

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Wanted in Houston: someone — anyone — without ties to Enron.

Southern District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal, who was overseeing some 45 cases involving 401(k) and securities claims against Enron in Houston, has become the latest public official to recuse herself from the Case of the Crooked E. (It's a play on Enron's tilted E logo, folks — not a rush to prejudge.) Her withdrawal, not revealed until Monday, came on Friday — just days after the entire U.S. attorney's office in Houston as well as the Attorney General of the United States (not to mention the one in Texas) had to step out of the investigation.

Next up to the plate is Judge Melinda Harmon, the Houston jurist whose most recently famous for her July decision to imprison crime writer Vanessa Leggett when she refused to turn over notes to the feds in a Houston murder case. Harmon, a Radcliffe grad who got her law degree at the University of Texas at Austin, had Leggett imprisoned for more than five months without bail. The writer got out of jail only this month.

Judge Rosenthal was and is, by all accounts, a honorable type but the fact that she was appointed by George Bush Sr., had worked for Bush's old chief of staff James Baker at Baker Botts in Houston, and had owned Enron stock did raise a red flag among angry shareholders. Last week, after all, Rosenthal turned down a request to freeze the $1.1 billion gained by 29 Enron directors and officers on stock options even as shareholders and employees were losing their shirt. Baker, her old boss, had worked for Enron after he left the Bush White House and it was, of course, Baker's firm who managed the post-election vote crisis in Florida for Bush Jr.

Rosenthal told the magazine Texas Lawyer she hadn't owned Enron stock "for a very long time"--certainly not in 2001 when the case came before her court. But according to a disclosure report filed with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, she did own some Enron stock in 2000. How much and whether she sold it was removed from the records at her request — with the approval of her judicial superiors. She, like most of the lawyers interviewed by Texas Lawyer, sees no problem with judges owning stock. "We just have to be careful," she told them. Hence, apparently, the decision to step down.

But Rosenthal's step points yet again to the difficulty of finding anybody in this neck of the woods who hasn't taken money, been employed by, or been burned by, Enron.