The news of Enron Founder Ken Lay’s sudden death at 64 of a massive heart attack is a very sad close to a very sad chapter in American business.
I, for one, felt really bad for Lay as the trial unfolded and his fate was sealed.
There’s no doubt that Ken Lay was guilty and, along with his cohort, Jeff Skilling, perpetrated a monstrous scheme that violated laws, destroyed a corporation and ruined many peoples’ lives. And, yet, Lay always struck me as kind of a sweet, unassuming figurehead (physically, he always reminded me of Bob Newhart). I’m sure he was a tough, no-nonsense businessman, but I guarantee he died a thousand deaths before his heart finally gave out last night.
Think about it. Here’s a guy who built Enron from nothing to a corporation that, at one point, was the absolute darling of Wall Street (and the focus of countless cover stories). Sure, he wheeled and dealed, and sure he turned his back as Skilling, Fastow, et al, became more and more creative with their bookkeeping.
But, when the trial began, I saw a defeated man. I saw someone whose image and reputation had taken a massive beating. I saw a man who had based his very existence on his work, only to see that work not only crumble, but become the watchword for an entire generation of corporate excess and greed.
So, when I hear some people say of Lay’s death…"Good. He got what was coming to him" and others exclaim, "I feel cheated," I have to disagree. The man suffered incredible public disgrace, watched everything he built fall apart and was facing decades in prison and financial ruin.
Although Ken Lay’s heart gave out long before he could begin re-paying his debt to society, I guarantee his psyche has been "doing hard time" for the past few years.
Key lay will forever be linked to the Enron disaster. But, I think we should give the guy (and his family) the benefit of the doubt re: his supposed "cheating" the hangman. Lay died many, many times before his heart stopped beating for the last time last night.