Ken Lay's Startling Youa-Culpa

You know that whole Enron thing? It's the media's fault. Oh, and short-sellers, too. At least, that's what former CEO Ken Lay wants you to think. Testifying in his own defense against fraud charges, Lay told a jury that the media and short-sellers share in the blame for the destruction of Enron, suggesting that these forces colluded to push the shares lower and the company into bankruptcy.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Overstock.com (Nasdaq: OSTK  ) CEO Patrick Byrne has levied similar charges against various members of the media and short-selling hedge funds, but his is a civil complaint. Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick TASER International (Nasdaq: TASR  ) also raised the specter of short-sellers in an investigation by the SEC into the firm's business conduct, which has since been resolved.

Now, suddenly, Lay is part of the same scandals. I'd laud it as brilliant if it weren't so embarrassingly manipulative. Think about it: Prey on current public fears over short-sellers, crooked reporters, and Sith Lords to earn sympathy and a "not guily" verdict. It's both sick and wrong, but that's not why I'm writing today.

My fear is that Lay's outrageous youa-culpa will provide an excuse for ordinary investors to toss away due diligence in favor of conspiracy theories. Please, don't be so small-f foolish. Remember that Enron was an out-and-out scam. Period. No amount of positive press would have allowed this dog to live another day.

Don't just take my word for it. Dig into fellow Fool Robert Aronen's overview of how Enron bilked investors. Or, better still; pick up a copy of Hewitt Heiserman Jr's It's Earnings That Count. In it, he explains in detail how Enron's fast-and-loose treatment of accounting standards had been in place since at least 1996. (Check out our discussion board for the book for more on Mr. Heiserman's approach.)

That's why Lay's charges are so foul; the media is a popular target. But the truth remains that fine media outlets like TheWall Street Journal demand transparency on behalf of investors. If anything, there weren't enough harassing reporters making the rounds during Enron's heyday. Improvements in coverage have been made since, but we could still do more -- better disclosure with respect to compensation, for example.

In the meantime, it's up to you, Fool. You'll have to master the basics of accounting and valuation to invest well. Fortunately, doing so has never been easier. Books like Heiserman's are abundant. The Fool's School is open 24/7. And the SEC's EDGAR database offers every public filing needed to make sound investing judgments, free over the Web. The shenanigans at Enron certainly helped crystallize the need for these and other useful services. For that, we ought to thank Lay. It's a legacy that the Fools among us ought to be able to profit from in the decades to come.

Related Foolishness is hardly scandalous. Get your fill here:

Fool contributorTim Beyerswould like to thank The Daily Show's Rob Corddry for the phrase "youa-culpa." Brilliant work, Rob. Tim didn't own stock in any of the companies listed in this story at the time of publication. You can find out which stocks he owns by checking Tim's Foolprofile. The Motley Fool has an ironcladdisclosure policy.


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