Former Enron CEO Lay Faces Skeptical Public, Not Just Congress

by Lydia Saad

Majority believes Enron executives acted illegally

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Former Enron chief Kenneth Lay's intention to assert his Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions from congressional investigators this week may only sustain the public's view that executives at his company acted illegally in the course of Enron's decline into bankruptcy. According to a Feb. 8-10 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 65% of Americans believe that Enron executives acted illegally -- exactly the same percentage who felt this way in late January. Another 26% of Americans believe Enron executives acted unethically, leaving just 2% who think they did nothing wrong, and 7% who are unsure.

Despite some recent controversy over Vice President Dick Cheney's possible involvement with Enron executives on his energy task force, the poll reconfirms the January finding that Americans primarily view the Enron bankruptcy debacle as a business scandal, not a political scandal. In contrast to the strong public indictment of Enron, very few Americans -- ranging from 11% to 15% -- say that the Bush administration, the Republicans in Congress, or the Democrats in Congress had illegal dealings with Enron. A fair number do, however, believe that these politicians may have acted unethically.

Looking at perceptions of illegal and unethical behavior combined, 91% of Americans believe Enron executives are guilty of something, compared to 58% who feel this way about the Bush administration, 54% about Republicans in Congress and 50% about Democrats in Congress.

Perceptions Of Wrongdoing in Enron Situation
Feb 8-10, 2002

Little Differentiation of the Parties' Roles

The close ties of President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney to the oil and gas industries in general, and to Enron in particular, have made them targets for Democratic criticism that Enron executives may have received untoward special treatment from the White House. However, other facts have been disclosed about the amount of Enron campaign contributions received by Democratic members of Congress, and the fact that Democrat Robert Rubin, Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton and now an executive with Citigroup, made phone calls to the Bush administration on Enron's behalf.

With all of these political charges and countercharges swirling around the Enron story, it appears that the public sees the two parties in roughly the same light on the issue. Not only do Americans have similar perceptions of the degree of wrongdoing by the Bush administration, the Republicans in Congress, and the Democrats in Congress -- as evidenced by the chart -- but when asked directly about which party is more mixed up in the Enron situation, the majority says they are equally involved.

Which Party is More to Blame for Enron?
Feb 8-10, 2002

Let the Sun Shine In

Although the public is not paying particularly close attention to news of the Enron story -- only 23% are following it "very closely" and another 47% "somewhat closely" -- a majority do believe that the Enron situation is very important to the nation. Fifty-two percent describe it as very important and 37% as somewhat important, while only 8% say it is either not too important or not important at all. This public concern is much higher than that recorded for either Whitewater or the presidential pardons during Bill Clinton's presidency, where at most 24% and 33% of Americans, respectively, rated the situation as very important.

Americans perceive the Enron case to be highly important -- which is perhaps why they are willing to see Congress investigate to get to the bottom of the contacts that members of the Bush administration may have had with Enron executives. Eighty-two percent believe this should occur, while just 14% disagree. Even a majority of Republicans, 62%, support the idea of a congressional investigation into the Bush-Enron connection.

Indeed, less than half the public (47%) believes the Bush administration is cooperating as much as possible in letting the public know about its contacts with Enron; 43% think they are trying to cover up these contacts. However, partisanship is in full view here -- a majority of Republicans (74%) say the administration is fully cooperating, and a majority of Democrats (66%) say it is covering things up.

Human Toll Grips Americans More Than Campaign Finance Angle

Americans focus their blame on Enron in this bankruptcy scandal. Thus, it is no surprise that the vast majority say the most important fact about the situation is the financial toll on Enron employees and retirees -- not the possibility that campaign contributions led to political favoritism toward Enron, nor the basic fact that Enron executives allowed a major U.S. corporation to decline into bankruptcy and near-collapse.

When three potential aspects of the controversy were read to respondents in the survey, "the fact that many Enron employees lost their jobs and their retirement savings while Enron executives made millions" was the most troubling to 65% of Americans. Only 9% chose "the fact that Enron contributed millions of dollars to politicians and may have expected favorable treatment in return" as being the most important issue in the Enron situation. Another 13% saw "the fact that the actions of Enron executives led a large corporation to suddenly collapse and go bankrupt" as being most important.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,011 adults, 18 years and older, conducted Feb. 8-10, 2002. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

As you may know, Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, says it will file a lawsuit to force the White House to release information about the consultations with business leaders by Vice President Cheney's energy task force. Do you think Vice President Cheney should -- or should not -- turn over information to Congress about the task force meetings?

 

Should

Should not

No opinion

       

2002 Feb 8-10

69%

26

5



How closely have you been following the news concerning the Enron energy corporation -- very closely, somewhat closely, not too closely, or not at all?

 

 

Very
closely

Somewhat closely

Not too closely


Not at all

No
opinion

           

2002 Feb 8-10

23%

47

22

8

*

           

2002 Jan 11-14

18%

37

26

18

1



How important an issue do you think the Enron situation is to the nation – very important, somewhat important, not too important, or not important at all?

 

Very important

Somewhat important

Not too important

Not important at all

No
opinion

           
 

%

%

%

%

%

Enron situation

         

2002 Feb 8-10

52

37

6

2

3

           

Clinton pardons ^

         

2001 Mar 9-11

33

30

17

17

3

           

Whitewater

         

1995 Jul 7-9

20

25

24

25

6

1994 Aug 8-9

17

26

27

25

5

1994 Jul 15-17

16

34

26

22

2

1994 Mar 7-8

24

33

26

12

5

           

^

WORDING: How important an issue do you think these pardons are to the nation – very important, somewhat important, not too important, or not important at all?

WORDING: How important an issue do you think Whitewater is to the nation – very important, somewhat important, not too important, or not important at all?



Which of the following statements best describes your view of the actions of executives of the Enron energy corporation -- [ROTATED: they did something illegal, they did something unethical but nothing illegal, or they did not do anything seriously wrong]?

 

 


Something
illegal

Something unethical but
not illegal

Did not do anything seriously wrong


No
opinion

         

2002 Feb 8-10

65%

26

2

7

         

2002 Jan 25-27

65%

17

2

16

2002 Jan 11-14

42%

29

6

23



Which of the following statements best describes your view of members of the Bush administration's involvement with the Enron Corporation -- [ROTATED: they did something illegal, they did something unethical but nothing illegal, or they did not do anything seriously wrong]?

 

 


Something
illegal

Something unethical but
not illegal

Did not do anything seriously wrong


No
opinion

         

2002 Feb 8-10

15%

43

28

14

         

2002 Jan 25-27 ^

15%

32

28

25

2002 Jan 11-14

10%

36

28

26

         

^

Asked of half sample.



Which of the following statements best describes your view of the Republicans in Congress involvement with the Enron Corporation -- [ROTATED: they did something illegal, they did something unethical but nothing illegal, or they did not do anything seriously wrong]?

 

 


Something
illegal

Something unethical but
not illegal

Did not do anything seriously wrong


No
opinion

         

2002 Feb 8-10

13%

41

30

16



Which of the following statements best describes your view of the Democrats in Congress involvement with the Enron Corporation -- [ROTATED: they did something illegal, they did something unethical but nothing illegal, or they did not do anything seriously wrong]?

 

 


Something
illegal

Something unethical but
not illegal

Did not do anything seriously wrong


No
opinion

         

2002 Feb 8-10

11%

39

34

16

         

2002 Jan 25-27 ^

16%

35

18

31

         

^

Asked of half sample.



Do you think Congress should -- or should not -- investigate the contacts that members of the Bush administration had with Enron executives?

 

Should

Should not

No opinion

       

2002 Feb 8-10

82%

14

4



If you had to choose, would you say the problems associated with Enron involve -- [ROTATED: mostly the Republican Party (or do they involve) the Republican and Democratic Parties about equally]?

 

 


Mostly the Republicans


Both parties equally

MOSTLY THE DEMOCRATS (vol.)


NEITHER
(vol.)


No
opinion

           

2002 Feb 8-10

20%

65

1

2

12



Which of the following comes closer to your view -- [ROTATED: the Bush administration is trying to cover up its contacts with Enron, (or) the Bush administration is cooperating as much as possible in letting the public know about its contacts with Enron]?

 

Trying to cover
up contacts

Cooperating as
much as possible

No
opinion

       

2002 Feb 8-10

43%

47

10



(vol.) --Volunteered response

* -- Less than 0.5%

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