WASHINGTON -- Underscoring the Enron Corp. scandal's proximity to the White House, Justice Department criminal investigators are ordering President Bush's staff to preserve the paper trail of any contact with the energy trading company's executives.
Friday's directive to the White House and other federal agencies came as two top Enron executives signaled they won't talk without immunity from prosecution.
Andrew Fastow and Michael Kopper were central figures in the company's unorthodox partnership arrangements that kept hundreds of millions of dollars in debt off the company's balance sheet.
"It's our expectation that both Mr. Fastow and Mr. Kopper will assert their Fifth Amendment right against potentially incriminating themselves," said Ken Johnson, spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Fastow and Kopper are to testify before the panel's oversight and investigations subcommittee next Thursday.
Kopper has been subpoenaed for his testimony.
Fastow has been described as a mastermind behind Enron's complex web of nearly 3,000 partnerships, which the company used to conceal huge debts.
Enron's chief executive officer, Jeffrey Skilling, is expected to testify Thursday, Johnson said. The former chairman, Kenneth Lay, a friend of Bush, plans to testify on Monday.
Minutes of Enron board meetings show that Lay and other directors had detailed information over a period of years about the partnerships.
"Mr. Lay called upon Mr. Skilling to discuss" a proposed partnership, said minutes from a meeting on June 28, 1999.
"Mr. Skilling noted that due to changes in the accounting treatment of off-balance-sheet transactions, the company had been analyzing new types of financing vehicles," the minutes from June 28 added. Skilling "called upon Mr. Fastow to discuss the proposal."
Justice Department investigators are trying to determine whether Enron defrauded its shareholders by concealing huge financial losses.
The Justice Department told the White House to save records of any statements "by Enron employees and agents" on the company's financial condition and business interests.
"We believe that documents in the possession of the White House, its staff and employees may contain information relevant to our investigation," the department's letter to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales said.
The order, announced by the White House, covers e-mails, letters, computer records and notes since Jan. 1, 1999, more than two years before Bush took office.
It requires the agencies to save the materials in case investigators want them at another time.
Bush has sought to distance himself from the gathering financial scandal despite his long personal and political association with Lay. Several administration officials also have close ties to the Texas-based company.
Hours before the White House announcement, Bush proposed reforms in pension laws in response to Enron's collapse.
Enron, once the nation's seventh-largest company, filed for bankruptcy on Dec. 2. It became a political problem for Bush the next month when the White House announced that Lay had contacted two Cabinet members late last year as the company foundered. Lay also contacted Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.
Democrats hope to make an election-year issue out of the Enron debacle, although polls show that neither party has a clear advantage.
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