Last week, CBS was the first to broadcast damning recordings of Enron energy traders delighting in the misery of all of the "Grandma Millies" who were ripped off by their manipulation of the energy market. The tapes document our worst fears about the California "energy crisis" and its damaging ripple effects on Northwest ratepayers: The whole thing was a multizillion-dollar swindle. Even worse, the perps didn't just smugly pocket the loot, they gloated. As one Enron trader put it, they "jammed [it] right up [Grandma Millie's] ass for fucking $250 a megawatt hour." They also chuckled about how great it would be if George W. Bush would appoint Ken Lay as energy secretary: There'd be nobody to stop the reaming of Grandma Millie then.
The Enron tapes are like audio versions of the Abu Ghraib prison photos. It's one thing to imagine people doing cruel things; it's another to see how much fun the sadists were having doing it.
But for all the outrage about this and other national depredations, let's save a little outrage for ourselves. While our blood justifiably boils at the idea of Enron con artists perpetrating so much misery at our expense, it ought to boil for cons closer to home, too.
The Enron problem was certainly enabled by that company's political and ideological pals in the public sector, from California legislators pushing deregulation on up to the president who enjoyed a close political friendship with "Kenny Boy" and his posse. The scam that robbed ratepayers was aided and abetted by public officials charged with protecting the public interest.
We have our share of public officials who aid and abet the looting of the public treasury. Gov. Gary Locke, who engineered the giant $3 billion–plus Boeing gift, is one. Unfortunately, that gift's a done deal, enabled by a majority of this state's major elected officials. There were very few dissenters and, unfortunately, one of the most outspoken, former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, has had to drop out of the governor's race for health reasons. The remaining major gubernatorial candidates—Democrats Ron Sims and Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi—all thought the Boeing giveaway was just dandy.
But still being pushed by our congressional delegation is the sleazy 767 tanker deal. The $23 billion agreement with the Air Force to buy or lease 100 Boeing refueling tankers turns out to be just another huge, multibillion-dollar government favor for the aerospace-defense giant.
The deal is on hold because there are so many problems with it, but it's amazing it is still wriggling at all. The Pentagon's own investigation of the deal found that the procurement process was highly irregular. One of the chief negotiators for the Air Force pleaded guilty to conspiracy for talking to Boeing about a job while overseeing the deal— a job she later took. Another report concluded that even the current deal, improved from original versions, could still overcharge taxpayers $4.5 billion. To add insult to scandal, last month the Defense Science Board issued a study concluding that the Air Force had no "compelling material or financial reason" to order the 100 new tankers in the first place.
To top this off, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is stonewalling the Senate committee that is trying to look inside the Pentagon sausage-making machine. Last week, he refused to turn over requested e-mails and records on the tanker deal that would give congressional overseers a chance to see what went wrong with the process and who was involved. Communications with the White House, of course, were on the list of documents that won't be provided. Boeing tanker–deal critic Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is incensed, saying Rumsfeld is "eviscerating" congressional oversight.
Despite all of this—despite a deal that proposes to pay too much for tankers that aren't needed via a process that has been thoroughly corrupted—the tanker contract is still being touted by our state's congressional leaders. Democratic Boeing Rep. Stormin' Norman Dicks of Bremerton says the current deal is a "bargain"; Democratic Sen. Patty Murray—call her "Pork Patty"—says she's confident that Boeing will get the tanker order eventually, saving its 767 assembly line in Everett; and even Murray's opponent in the November election, Republican Rep. George Nethercutt of Spokane, is sad that the Pentagon is dragging its feet.
OK, if these politicians ever open their mouths about Enron sleaze, you have my permission to slap them shut.
In other outrage news, read this week's cover story about the University of Washington's Medicare scandal, "Everybody Knew," by Rick Anderson (p. 22). Drawing on interviews with two whistle-blowers involved in the case, he gives us an inside picture of what I can only describe as a well-organized machine designed to overbill Medicare for procedures that were not performed, often by doctors who weren't even there. UW has until June 14 to come up with $35 million to settle the case— most of it out of the coffers of hospitals like Children's Medical Center, the UW School of Medicine, and Harborview Medical Center. But one wonders if the university—or the government—has really cleaned house, whether all the perpetrators have been held to account, and what the true costs to the public really are.
Maybe someday, we Grandma Millies will find out.