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Saturday, 9 February, 2002, 12:43 GMT
Betrayed by Enron
An Enron ex-employee
Houston's Enron employees are rallying together
Former Enron employees gathered to share stories of the moment their lives were torn apart by the annoucement that the giant energy company had collapsed. The BBC's Lesley Curwen was in Houston.

The scene was a gigantic circular church hall in a rundown suburb of Houston, Texas. It was full of sound, rhythmic singing and clapping. On a raised stage stood a small dark-haired woman. The audience went quiet.

"Hi my name is Jeanette Nichol," she said nervously into the microphone. This wasn't a religious rally - she wasn't about to describe a conversion to the Christian faith. She was there to testify in a different sense, about an event which had torn her life apart, the collapse of the giant energy company Enron.

We're not asking for charity, we're asking for justice

Reverend Al Sharpton

At a stroke, Jeanette and 4,500 of her colleagues lost their jobs and most of their life savings.

"This would have been my tenth year working at Enron," Jeanette told the audience. "I loved my company, I loved my co workers, I loved my job, I loved Enron".

But on 3 December she was called to a meeting at 11.30 - she remembers the exact time - and told she had 30 minutes to get her things and go.

That was the day that Houston's most arrogant company was declared bankrupt, after startling news emerged about the shaky state of its finances. Jeanette and 4,500 of her colleagues lost their jobs, and most of their life savings, invested in Enron's own shares.

Industry giant

Enron had dominated Houston business life. Its gleaming skyscrapers rise 50 storeys high in the downtown area. It was an extraordinarily powerful energy trading empire which tried to expand into new ventures, failed miserably, and hid the resulting debts in an intricate network of leaky financial plumbing.

A large number of secretive partnerships had been set up to conceal a billion dollars of debt. Was it fraud? A criminal investigation is under way to find out, but it looks increasingly likely.

Jeanette Nichol's appearance was part of a public rally in support of the sacked Enron workers. There was loud applause when she finished her story.

Enron flag
Enron's buildings were prominent on the Houston skyline
But the speaker who followed her was the real draw of the evening - Reverend Al Sharpton, the controversial black activist. His booming voice resounded through the hall, punctuated by cheers and hoots from the floor.

He told them there should be compensation for former Enron workers provided by the federal government - "We're not asking for charity, we're asking for justice," he said.

He fulminated against corporate greed and the lack of protection for workers. "When working class people get stuck," he said, "they try to act like we did it to ourselves."

Anger and betrayal

Jeanette and about 30 other former colleagues formed a small part of the mainly black audience. The mood was angry.

Most blamed Enron's executives for the collapse, and they booed when they heard about the millions that senior managers had made out of bonuses and from selling Enron shares, before they plunged in value to become almost worthless.

Jeanette told me later she felt betrayed by her manager, who had expressed sympathy on the day she was thrown out of the building, but who later turned out to have been paid a huge bonus to stay at the bankrupt firm.

She lost not only her job, but $200,000 from her pension plan which was largely invested in Enron shares. That was when she became scared.

Enron company promotion on website
Enron built up a culture of company loyalty
"That was what in a pinch, I had to fall back on," she said. Jeanette has nowhere else to turn, as she recently got divorced and has two children to support.

I asked her a difficult, uncomfortable question. Had it been wise to invest so much of her retirement savings in the volatile shares of one company - why not spread the risk?

Jeanette looked downcast. "I wasn't a very informed investor," she admitted. "But I believed in the company. Even though the shares were falling in value, if you leave the money there for five years, they come back up. I wanted to put as much in there as I could."

Misplaced trust

Attitudes like this are proof of the power of Enron's aggressive, money-spinning culture. Employees got carried away by the potential gains on its shares.

It's also a reflection of the culture of the late 1990s. After a decade of booming stock markets, it was hard to imagine any bad times ahead.

But the plight of the Enron employees has show up the holes in America's pension laws.

President George Bush has announced proposals which would go some way toward protecting people who put their money in so-called 401k pension plans, where much of the money can be held in just one stock - a lot of eggs held dangerously in one basket.

I wondered how much hope Jeanette Nichol and her co-workers have of getting their money back?

Kenneth Lay, Enron chief executive
Kenneth Lay, Enron's chief executive, is keeping a low profile
She, like many others, has signed up to a lawsuit to sue Enron bosses and the company's auditors, Andersen, for compensation. She doesn't expect to recoup more than a tiny percentage in a few years' time. And she's not banking on that.

At the end of the evening rally, the audience held hands and sang together. Jeanette was moved. I asked her what she'd learned. The answer was short and to the point. "You can't trust the people at the top", she said.

The Reverend Al Sharpton reassured everyone: "Just because you face hard times don't mean you can't make it through." For some former Enron workers, that's pretty hard to believe right now.

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