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Proposed Enron Settlement Would Seal Some Documents From Public


y David Cay Johnston

The government is moving to bar public access permanently to most of the audiotapes, e-mail messages, and other documents that show how Enron earned billions of dollars by manipulating electric-power markets, according to one senator and others opposed to a proposed settlement with Enron.

Enron traders boasted of cheating unsuspecting customers, some of whom they mocked as “poor grandmothers” who would not understand that their pockets were being picked by Enron, according to transcripts of a small portion of the tapes that have been released.

The staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission wants to withdraw materials that are not formally in the public record, as part of a settlement with Enron on charges of market manipulation.

But critics say that that would make the records unavailable to those who are suing Enron. The plan was first reported on Saturday in The Seattle Times.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., denounced the proposed settlement on Monday, saying that it would benefit Enron and its creditors at the expense of electricity customers in the Pacific Northwest who saw their electric bills soar by more than half in 2000 and 2001.

“We expect federal regulators to stand up and do their job of protecting the public with just and reasonable rates,” she said in an interview. Instead, she said, the regulators are helping Enron keep “unjust profits” earned “from fraudulent contracts.”

She said that the proposed settlement would only encourage more fraud in energy markets because “if they don’t stop this, then people continue to do it.”

Bryan Lee, a commission spokesman, said that he was mystified by the criticism by Cantwell and others. “Nothing is being sealed,” he said.

Commission staff documents said “thousands of e-mails, documents, etc.” that are in the public record “will forever remain in the public record.”

But Cantwell said that only a minority of the audiotapes and documents were in the public record and the rest would be removed from any possible access by parties who thought that Enron cheated them.

“They are suppressing the facts,” she said, adding that whether the verb was suppress, seal, or withdraw, “it all amounts to the same thing.”

Eric Christensen, deputy general counsel for the Snohomish County Public Utility District, which is trying to recover its share of more than $1 billion in profits that Enron made during the peak of the market manipulations, also criticized the commission.

The energy commission “is acting at Enron’s behest and completely abdicating its responsibility to the public,” he said.

In response, Lee, the commission spokesman, said that the ability of the public utility district and others to get access to the tapes and documents would not be diminished by the proposed settlement. He noted that the materials were held by the Justice Department.