William C. Powers Jr., a law school dean who was the chief investigator and author of a 2002 report that outlined misdeeds by executives at the energy company Enron, leading to congressional investigations and criminal charges, died March 10 in Austin. He was 72.
His death was announced by the University of Texas, where Mr. Powers served as dean of the law school and, from 2006 to 2015, as university president. He had complications from a fall and from an adult-onset form of muscular dystrophy.
Enron had been a Wall Street darling, with diversified holdings, a high profile and earnings that reached into the billions of dollars. Its name adorned the stadium of the Houston Astros baseball team.
In 2001, the Houston-based company’s fortunes suddenly collapsed, and by December, it had gone into bankruptcy.
Mr. Powers, then serving as the law school dean at Texas, was named to Enron’s board of directors, with instructions to lead an internal probe of what went wrong. He had no previous ties to the company, but watchdogs warned of a potential conflict of interest because the law school had accepted donations from Enron.
Nonetheless, Mr. Powers forged ahead, assembling a group of more than 30 lawyers and accountants to examine Enron’s records and conduct interviews. In February 2002, he submitted a 218-page report, describing a culture of corruption and financial malfeasance at the company’s highest levels.
“What we found was appalling,” he said before a subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee.
The Powers Report implicated Enron’s top executives in a scheme to use questionable or fraudulent accounting methods to hide huge financial losses while skimming off millions of dollars for themselves. It was one of the biggest corporate scandals in U.S. history.
“We found something more troubling than those individual instances of misconduct and failure to follow accounting rules,” Mr. Powers told the congressional panel. “We found a systematic and pervasive attempt by Enron’s management to misrepresent the company’s financial condition.”
Mr. Powers noted that “Enron improperly inflated its reported earnings for a 15-month period” in 2000 and 2001 “by more than $1 billion. This means that more than 70 percent of Enron’s reported earnings for this period were not real.”
Enron managers did not attempt to halt the financial chicanery, the report charged, and the company’s outside accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, looked the other way and destroyed financial documents.
The Powers Report “blows my mind,” then-Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said. “I am absolutely dumbfounded. I feel like I am in Sin City.”
The report offered a blueprint for congressional investigations of Enron and subsequent criminal cases against the company’s leaders and its accounting firm. Within months, Arthur Andersen was found guilty of obstruction of justice and was required to surrender its accounting licenses, effectively putting it out of business.
Enron’s chief financial officer, Andrew Fastow, who had illegally pocketed more than $30 million, pleaded guilty to fraud charges and served six years in prison while cooperating with prosecutors. The company’s top two executives, Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, were arrested in 2004 and later convicted of various crimes, including conspiracy and fraud.
Lay died in 2006 while awaiting what was expected to be a life sentence. Skilling was released from prison last month after serving more than 12 years. Enron was liquidated, and its various entities sold off to pay creditors.
Soon after the scandal came to light, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which strengthened financial and securities regulations and instituted mandatory rules governing corporate oversight and accounting procedures.
William Charles Powers Jr. was born May 30, 1946, in Los Angeles. His father was a teacher, his mother a homemaker.
He majored in chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, from which he graduated in 1967. After serving in the Navy, he received a law degree from Harvard University in 1973.
He taught at Southern Methodist University, the University of Michigan and the University of Washington before joining the law faculty at the University of Texas at Austin in 1977. He wrote several books on liability law and torts and had a private practice while teaching and had a wide variety of other interests, including Greek philosophy, physics, literature and sports. He was named dean of the law school in 2000 and in 2006 became president of the university.
Mr. Powers raised more than $3 billion for the university and was instrumental in establishing a medical school in Austin. He led an effort to improve the university’s four-year graduation rate, which rose from 50 percent to almost 70 percent.
Throughout his nine-year tenure, the second longest of any UT president, he continually battled interference from the state’s Republican governors and legislators. Mr. Powers rejected calls to cut back on liberal arts programs, to eliminate affirmative action efforts and to have professors evaluated by the amount of money they brought into the university’s coffers.
In 2014, he saved the financially struggling student newspaper, the Daily Texan, by merging it with the university’s school of communications. He repeatedly resisted efforts from hostile members of the board of regents to oust him before retiring in 2015.
His marriage to Karen Devendorf ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 36 years, Kim Heilbrun of Austin; two children from his first marriage; three children from his second marriage; a sister; and six grandchildren.
In 2016, two years after stepping down from the presidency, Mr. Powers defended his leadership of Texas’s flagship university:
“We teach the next generation of leaders on a campus that helps discover planets orbiting distant stars and that helps understand dark matter and, yes, even helps us understand even better what Shakespeare is about. Every single one of us needs to work hard every day to keep it that way.”