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    Letters to the Editors

    Enron shows how money taints our system


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 19, 2002

    Re: Enron and campaign finance reform, Feb. 13.

    Robert J. Samuelson misses the point entirely in contending the Enron scandal fails to demonstrate the corruptness of big political contributions and the need for campaign finance reform. In attempting to argue against reform, he posits a red herring in saying Enron would have collapsed whether or not its executives had made their large contributions.

    The disease the Enron scandal illuminates is far more pervasive and insidious than the underlying conduct of any single corporation, however notorious. The Enron frauds, with all their tragic consequences, would have been averted if our legislators had not been bought off by giant accounting firms and other moneyed interests that opposed plainly needed regulatory safeguards. And this is merely one sector.

    Samuelson's superficial treatment to the contrary, moneyed interests do largely control Washington (ask Sen. John McCain). Because of our corrupt campaign financing system, 39-million Americans remain without health insurance, senior citizens pay exorbitant prices for prescription drugs and the environment remains in jeopardy, to name a few of the system's consequences.

    Consistent with his shallow treatment of the Enron scandal, Samuelson is glib, and wrong, on the constitutionality of limiting campaign contributions. In Buckley vs. Valeo, the Supreme Court recognized the "speech component" in campaign contributions, but in its wisdom (and plain common sense) a majority of justices found that Congress' interest in maintaining the integrity of the electoral system outweighed any infringement on First Amendment rights the contribution limitation imposed. And the contributions leg, as opposed to the spending leg in campaign financing is the most abscessed: Legislators pay off campaign contributors, whose role is palpable; their connection with spenders, if any, is more tenuous. Thus, hope remains that meaningful campaign finance reform may eventually become a reality, and without our amending the Constitution, an event Samuelson, smugly, knows will never take place.
    -- Paul F. Peters, South Pasadena

    Follow the money trail

    Re: Enron and campaign finance reform.

    Robert J. Samuelson's column asserts that there is no real connection between the Enron collapse and political contributions. He notes that Enron's cardinal sin was deception, but then utterly fails in his role as a political analyst to connect the dots of the political influence and money trail that helped to expand opportunities for the deceptive practices that occurred.

    One of the key policy successes of the past decade for Enron (and other campaign contributors) was the Republican backed Private Securities Litigation Act, passed over President Clinton's veto in 1995, which made it more difficult to bring a lawsuit against companies and auditors engaged in questionable accounting practices.

    In 1997 Enron, along with others, gained congressional support to kill proposed legislation that would have prohibited taking tax deductions on employee stock options without counting the cost as an expense against company profits. Also in that year Enron used its position as a major Washington player to win an exemption from the Investment Company Act of 1940 which allowed it to leave debt from foreign power plants off its books, a practice repeated in some 900 other offshore limited partnerships.

    In 2000 Enron, along with accounting firm Arthur Anderson, had help from 40 members of Congress to pressure the Securities and Exchange Commission to abandon proposed stricter controls on conflict of interest that would have fostered more objective audits. And in December, 2000 Enron supporters in Congress tacked a provision on a spending bill that allowed Enron to expand its online futures trading operations without submitting to the same level of federal regulatory oversight as do the Chicago Board of Trade and the New York Mercantile Exchange.

    Beyond the facilitation of deception, Enron campaign contributions gained it enough access by 2001 to have the Bush energy plan include at least a dozen provisions that would benefit Enron, to secure White House intervention with the government of India to help Enron sell its $2.3-billion interest in a power plant there, and to see several persons it backed be appointed to regulatory positions and to other high office in the federal government.

    Without campaign finance reform we will have many more unwarranted successes in shaping federal policy based upon money corrupted "free speech," and a continued election system that produces policy results that are shaped more by a pattern of "one dollar, one vote" than by our ideal of one person, one vote.
    -- Roland Moy, Seminole

    It's protection of the incumbent

    Re: Campaign finance reform.

    The Pilgrims first came to America to escape the repressive monarchies of Europe. The American Revolution was fought to free America from the tyranny of the English crown. With the House passage of the Shays-Meehan Campaign Finance Reform Bill, our elected federal representatives, who enjoy their constitutional offices courtesy of the sacrifice, genius and faith of our founding fathers and our vote, have taken a step toward creating a new class of royals and returning the citizens of the United States to the status of subjects who will be forced to live without complete freedom of speech in regard to criticism of those individuals who now occupy U.S. congressional political office. The new form of tyranny? The Imperial Incumbency. God save the republic!
    -- Kevin D. Murray, Tampa

    We must remain vigilant

    Re: House passage of campaign finance reform.

    If the Enron debacle was the catalyst that softened the hearts of the fat cats living off lobbyists, then we must be grateful for Enron.

    I deeply appreciate, at long last, the return of sanity -- and hopefully democracy -- to this nation. I feel enfranchised for the first time in memory!

    At the same time, I know from experience that already there are politicians and lobbyists working to subvert and find ways around laws that remove their privilege. Please, for once, cut off their evil heads the instant they emerge, else we will have lost again.

    I am grateful from the bottom of my heart, but please be vigilant, for attack they will, to find ways to buy "our" government back.
    -- W.L. Head, Clearwater

    Reform government accounting, too

    Re: Subsidies and campaign finance reform,

    Feb. 14.

    What a refreshing thing it is to read George Will's take on the stupidity of our Congress and its zeal to do something, (anything) no matter how misguided, to get the attention of the public.

    It is of particular importance to note the farm subsidy, which takes $17-billion out of taxpayers' pockets each and every year to fund a handful of rich farmers in predominantly democratic states like Sen. Tom Daschle's, and then have Congress posture about the relatively small $2.7-billion that Americans contribute willingly to support all federal elections.

    It would seem to be more appropriate for members of Congress, while they are attacking the Enron mess, to confront something even more significant -- their own off-balance-sheet accounting. For example, the U.S. obligation to the International Monetary Fund totals $46-billion, but you won't find that anywhere in the federal budget report. You also won't find the recently approved railroad retirement bill listed anywhere, even though it is another government entitlement.

    Other examples of government largess at the taxpayer's expense are the Fanny Mae and Federal Home Loan Banks which are publicly held companies, but guaranteed by the federal government to the tune of more than $3-trillion! To go one step further, the Social Security taxes and Medicare payments we make are considered revenue, but nowhere is the future liability listed except as a footnote.

    It is equally important for us to demand fiscal responsibility not only from the Enrons of the world, but from our own Congress as well. As long as we sit in the silent darkness and blindly trust these elected officials to pontificate about their own virtues while not holding them to generally accepted accounting practices, we will be the ultimate losers.
    -- Sam Lasley, Clearwater

    Voter education can still happen

    Re: Stores veto vote machine demos, Feb. 14.

    It is unbelievable! There are more than 140 public schools in Pinellas County. Scattered among those are another 70 or more municipal-owned recreation centers, senior citizen centers and libraries. Most, if not all, are certainly suitable and afford the ideal atmosphere to conduct classes and hands-on demonstrations to teach future voters how to use the new user-friendly touch screen voting machines.

    Despite the availability of these facilities, county officials want to conduct their education programs among the hubbub of commercial facilities. Then if that isn't foolish enough, some get ticked off because "Home Depot and a handful of other Tampa Bay businesses" won't cooperate.

    Now, apparently in an effort to publicly "shame" business (or is it "smoke" to cloud the matter of poor planning?), Pinellas County Commissioners Kenneth Welch and Calvin Harris -- with no little help from the Times -- belittle business for being unpatriotic and arrogantly proclaim their need for civics lessons for not living up to their "civic responsibility."

    How soon we forget. It was just over five months ago that Home Depot, as well as other American businesses, voluntarily gave millions of dollars in materials, equipment, and cash to help New York City dig out from under the most cowardly attack in the history of our country. Frankly, there are some businesses in the Tampa Bay area that should receive a public apology.

    Most, if not all, will agree that government has the responsibility to take reasonable steps to convert "voter illiterates" into "voter literates." The government, however, does not have the responsibility to spoon-feed and wet-nurse the irresponsible, lethargic voter. When it comes to patriotism and civic lessons, government officials and the media need to set aside political correctness and face up to it: It is the patriotic duty and civic responsibility of every voter to find out and know when to vote, where to vote, and how to vote. Knowing the candidates and issues would be a plus.

    It would seem that with the touch-screen machines on hand, county officials -- using public-owned facilities, most designed for educational purposes -- could come up with a plan to make voter education available seven days a week -- at least to those who are interested and want it.
    -- A.E. Roberts, St. Petersburg

    History gets short shrift

    Re: Family Circus on the comic page of the the St. Petersburg Times on Feb. 12.

    A grade-school teacher mentioned to a student that, "Today is Abraham Lincoln's Birthday." The little girl responded: "Oh, good. Did his mother let him bring in a cake for us?"

    This was probably an unintentionally accurate assessment of the teaching of American history in today's morass of multiculturalism, and sadly, but not surprisingly, it was the only reference to our 16th president that I saw in the Times on Lincoln's Birthday.
    -- R.J. Radford, Clearwater

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