Accuracy in Media

As Enron executives and former executives appear before congressional committees and plead the fifth amendment or lose their memories, there has been no mention in the media of a key witness who would very likely not plead the fifth or forget the details of practices that he complained about before he retired from his position as vice chairman of Enron last May.

That key witness is J. Cliff Baxter, who was probably shown the door because he had complained to Chairman Ken Lay about one of the 2,800 partnerships that Enron created to conceal its debts, inflate its profits and siphon off millions of dollars for some of the investors and a few of its own executives. Baxter specifically criticized the LJM2 partnership. On Feb. 12, the Wall Street Journal reported the discovery of a document that shows that Ken Lay was involved in approving some of the transactions of LJM2 even though both he and his wife had claimed that he was not fully informed about the operations of the partnerships.

The Journal ran this story on the day that Ken Lay invoked his right not to incriminate himself when he appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee. Cliff Baxter, who knew a lot about LJM2 and other matters that might incriminate Ken Lay, had been subpoenaed by one Senate committee, and his lawyer had been notified that a House committee was interested in talking to him. Unfortunately, Baxter will not be able to testify before either one. He was found dead in his Mercedes, close to his home in Sugar Land, Texas, at 2:23 a. m. on Friday, January 25. He had been killed by a gunshot to the temple. A thirty-eight caliber handgun was found in the car.

The Wall Street Journal had reported on Jan. 28 that the Sugar Land police had “quickly put out a press release with the headline ‘Suicide.'” Someone must have reminded them that in such cases they are supposed to make an investigation to rule out the possibility of homicide. They soon changed the headline to “Death Investigation.” The medical examiner who performed the autopsy that same day called it a suicide without waiting for the results of the police probe. The media promptly reported the death as a suicide.

The New York Times story on Jan. 26 reported that the police had concluded it was suicide, saying he “had been shot once in the head with a thirty-eight caliber handgun” and that he “had left a note” but they would not release its contents. In the weeks that have followed, the only additional information the police have released is that they requested a trace on the gun. That suggests that no one in the Baxter family was able to identify the gun as one that he owned. The police have also shown that they don’t want to release the note Baxter allegedly left. They have asked the Texas Attorney General for a ruling on whether the law requires them to release it.

If the gun had been identified by a family member as one that belonged to Baxter; if he owned .38 rat-shot ammunition, the type that killed him; and if his fingerprints had been found on the gun and the spent casing, that would be pretty good evidence that homicide could be ruled out. In addition, if the note was written in handwriting that qualified experts have found to be Baxter’s, and if it explains to his family why he decided to kill himself, that would help rule out homicide. If his fingerprints were on the note, that would wrap up the case for suicide. The failure of the police to report the discovery of such evidence points in the opposite direction.

Some news stories have suggested that Baxter was distraught, but that is not what his family says, according to a sources close to them. He was trading in his 72-foot yacht for a larger one. He is said to have completed the transaction the day before he died. The New York Times reported that a friend had called Baxter that same day to compliment him for having been an Enron whistleblower. The friend revealed that Baxter had said, in an undisclosed context, “I’m a businessman. Why do I need a bodyguard?”

Maybe he did. Maybe he was warned. Since the police are not exploring that angle, one of the committees probing Enron might consider looking into Cliff Baxter’s untimely, for him, demise.




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