Cantwell Pushes for Release
by Dan Richman
A federal energy agency is suppressing evidence that traders for bankrupt Enron Corp. schemed to gouge Washington residents, and that agency -- the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission -- should be forced by the Justice Department to disgorge the evidence, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said yesterday.
At an Everett news conference with Snohomish County Public Utility District officials, Cantwell said taped telephone conversations could help the PUD and others in their legal battles with the Houston energy trading company.
Enron filed for bankruptcy in 2001 amid devastating revelations of hidden debt, inflated profits and shady accounting.
The Snohomish PUD wants Enron to forfeit millions of dollars wrongfully obtained during the West Coast power crisis of 2000 and 2001, helping the utility recover some of what it spent on higher power costs. Cantwell said the utility was forced to pay 50 percent more to buy power, passing along that cost along to current customers and driving away businesses that might otherwise have settled here.
Separately, Enron in mid-2002 sued the utility for $122 million, saying the PUD acted illegally when, in November 2001, it prematurely ended a contract to buy power. The PUD says that contract is voidable because of Enron's manipulative practices.
If Enron's suit is successful, each ratepayer in the district -- including Cantwell -- would have to pay $370, on top of the hundreds of dollars they were previously gouged by Enron's market manipulation, she said.
"Affordable electricity has been the lifeblood to our economy, and that has been threatened by these contracts," Cantwell said.
"But they are now being threatened by people who will not give our constituents the ability to access the information necessary for justice to prevail."
Snohomish County PUD, the 12th-largest consumer-owned utility in the country, serves 290,000 people. About four months ago, consultants hired by the utility listened to about 1,000 hours of Enron traders' phone conversations recorded in August, September and December 2000 and in January 2001, said the utility's assistant general counsel, Eric Christensen.
Traders routinely tape conversations to keep a record of transactions. The utility obtained the tapes as part of the discovery process in Enron's suit against it. Transcripts, released last week, made news nationwide.
In one transcript, a trader asks about "all the money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers of California."
To which the Enron trader responds, "Yeah, Grandma Millie, man. But she's the one who couldn't figure out how to (expletive) vote on the butterfly ballot."
The first trader answers, "Yeah, now she wants her (expletive) money back for all the power you've charged right up -- jammed right up her (expletive) for (expletive) $250 a megawatt-hour."
"Those tapes prove there was a regular, daily routine of stealing power from the Western power grid," Christensen said yesterday. "We looked at only a small subset, six to eight weeks' worth out of 18 months to two years of them. One wonders how much more would come out if we were able to see all of them. FERC seems to be doing everything it can to prevent this evidence from being released and considered."
Cantwell said tapes that are now in the custody of the Justice Department as part of its criminal investigation could provide evidence of manipulation and the intent of Enron employees.
FERC, which regulates the transmission and sale of electricity, didn't return a call seeking comment.
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