HOUSTON -- On Aug. 16, Enron Corp.'s newly reinstated chief executive and chairman Kenneth C. Lay called a meeting to allay employees' concerns about the company's management and sagging stock price.
The Hyatt Regency's ballroom was packed. It was so full that late-comers who ventured across the street from Enron's headquarters were turned away. They joined traders and secretaries, engineers and meteorologists who watched their leader from flat computer screens on their desks.
Speaking two days after the sudden resignation of his predecessor, Lay outlined a healthy picture of the company he had helped build. Recent allegations about the company's accounting procedures were Wall Street concoctions, he said. "We've got a lot of great stuff going on and we're not getting much credit for it in the marketplace, but we will," he pledged.
As the man who helped build the empire that was Enron delivered the last of the reassuring words, one by one, the crowd rose to give their white knight a standing ovation.
Denys Watson was one of them. "What a nice guy ... fatherly, grandfatherly, a well-respected, down-to-earth individual," she said.
Then came a bitter laugh. "It's more than anger I feel," she said. "It's betrayal."
To the thousands of workers who lost their jobs under Lay's leadership, his exit this week couldn't have come soon enough. But most say they won't be satisfied until Lay and other executives have been punished for misleading investors and employees about the company's financial health. In a city still reeling from Enron's collapse, workers tend to respond sarcastically to the latest scandal circling their former employer.
"I heard he sold a house in Aspen. My heart bleeds for him," said Margaret Daffin, who lost a job in Enron human resources. "So many people can't even pay their electricity bill. Their assets should be taken away and they should be thrown in jail."
Enron employees say they remained fiercely loyal until the end. For most, the end came in a massive layoff on Dec. 3, the day after Enron filed the largest bankruptcy claim in U.S. history.
"I believed in Ken Lay," said Tushar Dhruv, who worked in Enron's global markets division. "I believed what I heard from management. There was no way of knowing."
In the August meeting, Lay reiterated support for then-chief financial officer Andrew S. Fastow. As the trading floor watched, those who didn't believe Lay snickered and laughed. "The gas traders were a pretty sarcastic group," said Sam Smith, a weather specialist in Enron's gas trading group. "We thought, 'There's the kiss of death.' "
Fastow's name has taken center stage in an accounting scandal over a series of joint ventures that allowed the company to conceal its debt. Many employees said they continue to wonder just how much Lay knew about those partnerships.
"Up until fairly recently, I pretty much thought Ken Lay had let other people do these things and then it got him in trouble," Smith said. "Now I don't know what to think."
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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