How Fastow Helped Enron Fall

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Enron's ex-CFO Fastow kept mum before a hostile House hearing

The Enron employees who filed into a hotel meeting room on Oct. 23 were understandably nervous. Just days before, the energy-trading company had announced a $618 million loss for the third quarter, tied in part to the unraveling of one of its partnerships, and chief executive Ken Lay had called an all-hands meeting to reassure workers about the future. The affable Lay told everyone that if operating earnings were on target, as it appeared they would be, bonuses would be paid. The questions that followed veered toward the trivial--the Christmas party, parking privileges--until one persistent energy trader started drilling for details about Enron's myriad, murky off-the-books enterprises.

The trader, Jim Schwieger, challenged Lay. Why, he asked, was chief financial officer Andrew Fastow sharing the stage--and gainfully employed--considering that he had just blown half a billion dollars mismanaging several Enron partnerships and earned $30 million doing it? Lay put his arm around Fastow and proclaimed his "unequivocal trust" in the CFO. The partnership accounting was complex stuff, Lay explained, but Fastow was on top of it--or he'd be in big trouble. A day after that buddy-buddy display, Fastow was history.

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Not long afterward, so was Enron. The company's Chapter 11 filing leaves banks, pension plans and other lenders with at least $5 billion at risk. More than 4,000 Enron employees have lost their jobs and 401(k) savings. The collapse is still reverberating in the stock market, which has dropped some $200 billion in value since Enron's Dec. 2 filing, amid fears that other Enrons are lurking out there.

Fastow and at least six others involved in his financial gaming, all with jobs or spouses at Enron, made at least $42 million on investments totaling $161,000--sometimes literally overnight--while the flawed partnerships they hawked to outfits from the MacArthur Foundation to the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System were collapsing in value.

Fastow was called to explain himself in front of a seething congressional committee probing Enron's failure last week. But he declined to testify, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Says his spokesman, Gordon Andrew: "Our position remains that Mr. Fastow acted with the full knowledge and approval of Enron's board of directors, its office of the chairman, which included Mr. Lay and Mr. Skilling, and its internal and external auditors and legal advisers." His former boss, Jeffrey Skilling, who quit as Enron CEO last August, had no such hesitation, insisting to his incredulous interrogators that things had gone swimmingly on his watch.

The tale of Andy Fastow's rise from a plodding loan consolidator to financial genius at one of the country's coolest companies wasn't what it appeared to be. Then again, neither was Enron. "Fastow could talk the talk, but there's pretty clear evidence now he couldn't walk the walk," says an Enron insider. Fastow and his team "were all caught up in the facade of greatness."

In the company's fat days, Fastow earned a reputation as a money wizard who constructed the complex financial vehicles that Enron drove on the road to explosive growth. Skilling wanted an "asset-light" company that could rapidly exploit deregulating markets for energy, water, broadband capacity and anything else that could be traded. So beginning in 1993, Fastow created hundreds of "special-purpose entities" designed to transfer Enron's debt to an outside company and get it off the books--without giving up control of the assets that stood behind the debt.

The challenge for Enron was to enter the burgeoning deregulated energy markets without sacrificing its credit rating by carrying too much debt on the books. So Fastow got creative. He tripled his staff, to more than 100, hiring various banking experts and giving them the task of selling and buying capital risk. "They were all young kids, 28 to 32, with great pedigrees, and they started coming up with these fancy derivatives," says Houston lawyer Tom Bilek, who interviewed dozens of former Fastow associates before suing Enron's management. "But Fastow was the boy genius setting all these SPEs up."

The people who sat across the negotiating table from Fastow as he pitched Enron's deals, and the people who worked with him, were never as impressed with him as they were with his boss and mentor, Skilling. It was Skilling who provided the strategic vision behind Enron, who transformed its old gas-pipeline culture into a swaggering, rule-breaking, dealmaking cult that ultimately mislaid its analytical skills and perhaps its moral compass. Skilling, a Harvard M.B.A. and former McKinsey & Co. consultant, had a high-wattage intellect that always impressed. Even when he was a student, people who met him knew he would do something big.

Fastow was never considered a big man on campus, not even at his suburban New Jersey high school. A teacher there remembers Fastow only as a slacker who tried to talk him into raising his grades. Hardly anyone at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management can even recall him from his years as an M.B.A. student. The response is similar at Tufts, where he studied Chinese and economics as an undergrad and played a little trombone and tennis on the side. Most Enron employees didn't know who he was until relatively recently. As head of Enron Capital Management--his job in 1997 and '98, when he was named CFO--he wielded his power across a very narrow band. In contrast to the avuncular Lay and the brilliant Skilling, Fastow was a PowerPoint executive whose number-crunching talent far exceeded his managerial and people skills. Indeed, when Fastow was charged with running an actual business--he was named managing director of Enron Energy Services in 1996--he botched it, and Skilling had to reel him back to finance.

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