Pride has always been the fatal flaw. Just look at literature. From Homer to Hamlet and even Harry Potter, hubris is the vice that brings down the mighty.
These days, our most visible dramas tend to play out in legal action, and some pretty compelling language has come to light in the Snohomish County, Wash., Public Utilities District's (PUD) efforts to obtain compensation from Enron (OTC BB: ENRNQ.PK) for alleged market manipulation.
Recent transcripts of conversations between Enron's West Coast energy traders offer vivid proof that the firm's sophisticated, self-obsessed thieves didn't just hold a dim view of its unwitting stockholders. Public entities, like the state of California, were considered easy prey. Timothy Belden, one of two traders from the Portland office who have pled guilty and cut a deal with prosecutors, says on one tape that the firm's trading practices "just (expletive) California... to the tune of a million bucks or two a day."
As you might expect, these guys harbored no affection for the rest of us, either. You and I -- derisively referred to as "Grandma Millie" by the traders -- are looked at as ignorant rubes, ripe for the rip-off.
In one tape, after enduring a bit of ribbing about "how much money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California," a trader says, "Yeah, Grandma Millie, man. But she's the one who couldn't figure out how to (expletive) vote on the butterfly ballot." The first speaker responds, "Yeah, now she wants her (expletive) money back for all the power you've... jammed right up her (expletive) for (expletive) 250 dollars a megawatt-hour."
Other tapes document traders' nefarious plans such as sending power away from areas that needed it, manufacturing grid congestion that Enron would later be paid to alleviate. They also capture the hope that then-candidate George W. Bush might someday appoint Ken Lay as U.S. energy secretary.
"How great would that be for all the players in the market?" one asked.
Pretty great, I'll bet. And given the unbelievable arrogance displayed by this gaggle of crooks -- they knew these conversations were being taped, for crying out loud -- we should be mighty glad it didn't come to pass. But most of all, we should hope that this kind of criminal conceit is punished as mightily in our courtrooms as it is in fiction.
Interested in more Fool coverage of corporate misdeeds?
Or take a walk down memory lane in the Fool's archived Enron board.