The government's pension insurance agency and the remains of Enron Corp. are slugging it out in two different courts as the agency attempts to preserve pension assets for Enron workers and retirees and the company seeks to emerge from bankruptcy.
Enron has said it intends to work out a "standard termination" for four of its pension plans, which cover about 17,000 workers. Under that scenario, it would buy annuities from private insurers to pay all the plan's benefits.
The head of the government's Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. said yesterday, however, that Enron has made little progress toward that goal, and he questioned the company's sincerity.
The agency appears fearful that if the situation drags on, the company's assets could be committed to other creditors, leaving PBGC to take over a deeply underfunded group of plans.
The dispute, which involves the bankruptcy court in New York and a U.S. District Court in Texas, comes as the PBGC -- whose liabilities already exceed its assets -- faces billions of dollars in actual and potential claims from bankrupt steel companies and airlines. The shortfall in the pension plans of bankrupt United Airlines alone is at least $7.5 billion.
The PBGC filed suit in Houston in June seeking to terminate the four Enron plans and to take over their assets and liabilities. It also objected to Enron's reorganization plan in bankruptcy court, but that objection was overruled and the plan approved.
PBGC's claims against Enron total $321.8 billion, including a fifth plan it has not sought to terminate.
Enron asked the bankruptcy court on Wednesday to halt the Texas court action, accusing the PBGC of "forum shopping" and trying to win in one court what it could not get in another.
PBGC Executive Director Bradley D. Belt, in a statement yesterday, said a standard termination would be "the ideal outcome for participants and the pension insurance program.
"Unfortunately," Belt added, "by its own admission, Enron has failed to make any progress toward executing a standard termination. With [its court action], Enron raises even more doubts about its willingness to keep its pension promise to workers and retirees. If Enron fails to carry out its commitment to do a standard termination, the PBGC is ready to assume the pension obligations, pay participants their guaranteed benefits, and pursue its claim against Enron for the full amount of the underfunding."
UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, meanwhile, has said it will not make required payments into its underfunded plans. The PBGC has called that illegal and asked the airline either to explain how it plans to make good on its obligations or to concede that it cannot and so inform the agency. United contends that its bankruptcy financing bars such contributions but argues that turning its plans over to the PBGC would cut many workers' benefits sharply. The sides have met once on the issue and are expected to meet again.