By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006
HOUSTON, July 12 -- Former Enron Corp. executive Kenneth L. Lay, the business visionary who became a symbol of corporate greed, was memorialized Wednesday for his devotion to his family, his faith and his philanthropy -- and also defended as a "good man" who was the victim of prosecutors and the media.
He was a "straight arrow -- a Boy Scout, if you will -- who lived by Christian-Judeo principles," longtime friend Mick Seidl said during a memorial service that drew almost 1,200 to First United Methodist Church. The church, where Lay and his wife, Linda, were married 24 years ago this Monday, is just blocks from the downtown skyscraper that once housed Enron, the energy-trading giant that Lay built.
"I am saddened he will be remembered for the Enron indictment and trial," Seidl said. "An overzealous federal prosecutor and the media have vilified a good man. It was total character assassination."
The service drew a wide range of public officials and dignitaries who live in Houston, including former president George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, former secretary of state James A. Baker III, and former Texas governor Mark White. This was the second service for Lay, 64, who died of a heart attack on July 5 while vacationing in Aspen, Colo., with his family. A private funeral was held there on Sunday. Lay's remains were cremated, and his ashes were buried in the Colorado mountains.
Lay was convicted May 25 on six federal counts of fraud and conspiracy in connection with the 2001 collapse of Enron. The bankruptcy wiped out more than 5,000 jobs and $1 billion in employee retirement savings and led to federal investigations into corporate wrongdoing and the manipulation of financial statements.
Lay and fellow former Enron chief executive Jeffrey K. Skilling were tried on charges that they lied to stockholders and the public about the company's financial condition so they could protect the value of their multimillion-dollar holdings of Enron stock. The two maintained that they were betrayed by a few dishonest employees and that Enron was destroyed not through fraud but by a collapse in the public's confidence in the company.
Both men were to be sentenced Oct. 23 and faced decades in federal prison. Skilling's court date still stands.
Wednesday's service was delayed after former Houston mayor Bob Lanier collapsed as he walked down the aisle of the sanctuary with his wife. Lanier, 81, worked closely with Lay during his six-year mayoral tenure in the 1990s. They collaborated on the renaissance of downtown, which included a new ballpark for the Houston Astros. The stadium, called Enron Field until the company imploded in 2001, is now called Minute Maid Park.
Lanier, who testified as a character witness during Lay's fraud and conspiracy trial, has a history of heart problems. He was taken to a hospital by ambulance. A Lanier family spokeswoman later said he was awake, alert and "in good spirits."
During the service, family members eulogized Lay as a loving husband, father, stepfather and grandfather. One stepson, Beau Herrold, read four pages of fond childhood reminiscences of Lay, going back to the days when Lay was courting his mother, who was then a single mother of three. Lay embraced him and his siblings as though they were his own children, Herrold said.
Another stepson, David Herrold, said he was saddened by Lay's death and "angry because of the way he was treated the last five years of his life. I'll leave it at that."
Perhaps the most passionate posthumous defense of Lay was made by the Rev. William A. Lawson, a veteran local civil rights leader with whom Lay worked during Enron's heyday to support projects in Houston's black community. Lawson said the federal prosecution of Lay and the attendant publicity was tantamount to "a lynching."
"Those who did not like him have had their say, and I'd like to have mine," Lawson said. "And I don't care what you think."
Former Enron tax analyst Marie Watkins stood outside the church in the shade of a red umbrella, wearing a white shirt with the iconic tilted letter E on the pocket, and paid her respects.
She said she worked with Lay for 27 years -- first at Florida Gas Co., where Lay began his public career in 1973 after working as a Washington bureaucrat, and after he moved to Houston to take on other energy business ventures. Although she lost 90 percent of her stock portfolio when Enron folded, she called Lay "a good person who did a lot of good in the community."
"He was wrong in what he did, and justice was served," she said. "But that doesn't make him a bad person. He made a big, big mistake that caused a lot of people a lot of hurt, and I know he felt bad about it."
Special correspondent Carol Rust contributed to this report.