Washington Enron set up an array of dizzyingly complex schemes to hoodwink the Internal Revenue Service, reap more than $2 billion in questionable tax and accounting savings and inflate its income as it paid its executives lavishly, a congressional panel found in an investigation made public Thursday.
The now-bankrupt company created a dozen tax-sheltering transactions that used techniques like claiming the same tax loss twice, according to a report by the House-Senate Joint Committee on Taxation, which spent a year investigating Enron's tax practices. With names like Project Apache, Project Renegade and Project Condor, the transactions show a vast new arena of Enron activity beyond the web of off-balance-sheet schemes and partnerships that have already been revealed.
"Money, money, money," declared Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, at a hearing on the tax panel's report. "Money above honesty and financial accounting."
The massive three-volume report "reads like a conspiracy novel," Grassley said.
The evidence of Enron's clever manipulation of the tax laws and the fact that other big U.S. corporations do the same are fueling a push by lawmakers to crack down on tax shelters. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle called the report "a call to action and we will act."
Democrats have pushed legislation to deny tax benefits on sham transactions, but the Bush administration "has continued to oppose it even after the collapse of Enron," said Daschle, D-S.D. "I call on the administration to stand up for honest taxpayers instead of continuing to resist efforts to crack down on corporate tax shelters."
Big accounting firms, investment banks and law firms -- including Bankers Trust, Chase Manhattan, Deloitte & Touche and fallen Arthur Andersen -- that gave Enron tax advice pushing legal boundaries did not escape blame from senators and congressional investigators.
The outside advisers, who received some $88 million in fees from Enron, colluded, said Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the Finance Committee's senior Democrat. "Enron and its advisers conspired to mine the tax code for tax schemes. ... They ensured that no one -- particularly the IRS -- would ever discover what they were up to."
Enron's failure in late 2001 destroyed the retirement savings of thousands of employees and hurt individual investors and pension funds nationwide. The joint taxation committee's inquiry was among more than a dozen congressional investigations last year into Enron's collapse.
Enron's tax deals "pushed the concept of business purpose to the limit (and perhaps beyond)," the panel's report says. "Enron's behavior illustrates that a motivated corporation can manipulate highly technical provisions of the law." By using advice from sophisticated lawyers, investment bankers and accountants, "corporations like Enron have an inherent advantage over the IRS," it says.
Lindy Paull, the joint panel's chief of staff, stopped short of saying Enron violated the tax laws, telling senators that Enron gained "inappropriate benefits" from its use of the schemes.
"This result should not happen under the tax code," Paull testified Thursday.
The company's tax department became a profit center, with its own annual revenue targets, the report shows.
"Show Me the Money!" is emblazoned on an internal Enron document detailing a tax transaction, one of thousands of pages released by the Finance Committee.