“You sweep men away in the sleep of death;. . .” Psalm 90:5
To me this line from Psalm 90 is all about Kenneth Lay, the disgraced CEO of Enron, an energy company that did little more than lay pipeline until Lay turned the company into an immense multi-national conglomerate, over 100 billion in annual revenues and number seven on the Fortune 500 in 2000. Listen to this: in 2001 Ken Lay gave away $6.1 million dollars. That’s wealthy.
But his successes took a tragic turn with the collapse of the huge energy company he’d helped create. Corruption found its way into the inner sanctum of Enron, and the company staggered and fell, first to its knees, then flat on its face, taking the dreams and financial futures of many thousands with it into oblivion.
It took several years for investigators to unravel the paths of corruption, but from early on it was clear that Lay’s innocence—he claimed as much—was going to be difficult to prove. His was, after all, the desk where the buck stopped. Eventually a jury convicted Kenneth Lay, friend of Presidents, Houston’s most blessed philanthropist, of fraud and conspiracy for lying to employees and stock holders.
His story is the great American dream. Born dirt poor in Missouri, he rose by his bootstraps to the shining pinnacle of corporate America. A note he sent to George W. Bush in 1998, on the occasion of Bush’s capturing the Texas Governorship, makes clear his relationship: “Please have your team let me know what Enron can do to be helpful in not only passing electricity restructuring legislation but also in pursuing the rest of your legislative agenda.” And then, penciled in beneath the type: “George—Linda and I are incredibly proud of you and Laura.” And finally, “Ken.”
Sounds almost like a father.
Few men or women on earth wielded Ken Lay’s power during the glory years at Enron. Few fell so far, so fast. Today, his name, when it is remembered at all, is synonymous with greed and graft, the quintessential white-collar criminal. When he fell, late-night comedians cut him up nightly. Today, no one remembers.
Amazingly, not long after his sentencing but before any jail time, he died; the autopsy said heart disease. Those who’ve followed the story—me included—felt somehow robbed because there should have been more before the cover closed. We were supposed to have seen him in an orange jumpsuit, trucked off to prison; we needed to hear the mechanical clang of a dead bolt. We needed to feel justice.
But he died, fell over dead on a vacation, of all things, in Aspen, Colorado. It just wasn’t right.
Those of us who are believers would like to see something else come out of this whole sordid tale—a confession of sin, maybe. Ken Lay toted a Bible to church every Sunday of his life, taught Sunday school for many years. A frequently combative and seemingly arrogant defendant during his six-month trial, Lay should have had time to make amends, to make peace, to show us redemption. When he died, I remember feeling as if the story just couldn’t be over. We were nowhere near a denouement.
But dead men tell no tales, and now he’s gone. His family misses him, I’m sure, but also must feel some relief. Conspiracy theorists will never believe “heart disease.”
Kenneth Lay was “swept away in the sleep of death,” just exactly as the Psalm say. But this verse is not about Ken Lay.
It’s much easier for all of us, it seems, to get high-and-mighty than it is to remember to ask not for whom the bell tolls.