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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 July 2006, 22:17 GMT 23:17 UK
Ken Lay's death leaves a mixed legacy
Guto Harri
By Guto Harri
BBC North America business correspondent

Kenneth Lay arrives at court
Despite the pressures on him, Mr Lay remained upbeat and polite
Kenneth Lay must have hated people like me.

Every day of his trial, as he approached the Federal Courthouse in Houston, we'd close in on him, thrusting camera lenses in his face and microphones under his mouth.

We sometimes asked silly, superficial questions.

At other times they were heartless - casually flung inquiries which nevertheless reminded him that he might grow old and die in prison.

Every day, however, he greeted us politely and projected a contagious confidence that life will always turn out fine if you approach it with a positive attitude.

Changed man

It was different inside the courtroom, where he was on trial for his role in the billion-dollar collapse of energy trading giant Enron, one of the biggest corporate scandals in US history.

The former chairman and chief executive of Enron was irritable under cross-examination.

His combative style surprised those who viewed him as a jolly old Texan who loved his family, gave generously to charities and turned an obscure gas supplier into America's seventh largest company.

We believe God in fact is in control and indeed he does work all things for good for those who love the Lord
Ken Lay

And he failed to convince the jury that he played no significant part in the collapse of that company - a bankruptcy which ruined millions of lives and undermined confidence in the entire corporate system of the US.

Part of the problem was that wealthy, well-connected people like Mr Lay do not expect to be prosecuted. When George Bush calls you "Kenny boy" and everyone else you meet calls you "sir" it is easy to believe you are invincible.

When you have an overdraft facility of $40m (22m), and live on the top of an exclusive condominium where the staff park your car and carry your shopping, its hard to picture yourself in a prison cell.

Add to that his firm belief that God was behind him, and you can see why Kenneth Lay was so outraged to be found guilty.

I still remember watching him appeal to a higher authority than that court in Houston.

"We believe God in fact is in control and indeed he does work all things for good for those who love the Lord," he said.

Different times

The son of a preacher (who also kept a grocery store), Mr Lay clearly put himself in the category of people who would always be protected by the Almighty.

Houston residents had mixed feelings about Mr Lay's conviction.

Most will never forgive him for Enron's collapse, and they all remember that he advised them to keep their company shares when he was off-loading his own.

Kenneth Lay
Mr Lay always protested his innocence

He lived in luxury, spending $200,000 on a yacht for his wife's birthday

But when the going was good he paid good salaries, spent loads of money in Houston, sponsored sporting teams and put the Texas city on the map.

The corporate headquarters built when Enron set the pace for the rest of corporate America is a striking and attractive building.

One half is now being used by another energy company, while the skyscraper which contained Mr Lay's old office is largely empty.

Seeing him go to prison was meant to bring closure to this whole episode and serve as a deterrent to other potential white-collar criminals.

Now we'll never know how long Mr Lay would have spent behind bars.

His funeral will clearly highlight that the game is finally up for Mr Lay, but it will also remind everyone else that the good times they once enjoyed with him have also gone forever.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
See how Kenneth Lay reacted to his Enron conviction



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