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Fraud Conviction Changed Lay Personality

LYNN NEARY, host:

We've learned in the last hour that Ken Lay, the founder and former chairman of Enron, has died. Lay reportedly died of a heart attack this morning at his vacation home in Colorado. He was 64.

Earlier this year, Lay was convicted of defrauding investors and employees in the months before Enron collapsed in December 2001. NPR's Wade Goodwyn covered that story and the legal proceedings against Ken Lay.

NEARY: Wade, this just seems like the most incredible end to this absolutely incredible story.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

I mean, it's - Enron claims one more victim. I think everybody had thought of Ken Lay as a perpetrator, and while they may still think of him that way, now he's certainly a tragic victim of Enron. I realize that he caused a lot grief for a lot of people, but dying of a heart attack so soon after being found guilty you can't help but think that the trial and the ordeal that he's gone through over the last four years is connected to his death.

NEARY: Yeah. He was maintaining a very low profile since the trial. He was awaiting sentencing, but we hadn't heard much of Ken Lay.

GOODWYN: No. He had vacation homes in Aspen, Colorado, for years and perhaps, after the ordeal of the trial, he and his family were trying to spend some last time together before the next round of hearings for his sentencing. But yes, he's been keeping a low profile, of course, as you would after you'd been found guilty of the crimes he has been.

NEARY: Now, you've covered Ken Lay and the Enron story for years - Ken Lay even before the story broke. Give us a sense what he was like.

GOODWYN: You know, there were two Ken Lays. The Ken Lay before Enron went bankrupt was this affable, glad-handing kind of a politician who helped build Enron's business through his relationship building.

He was known as a philanthropist. If you came to Ken Lay with your hand out in Houston, you likely walked away with it full of money. No matter whether you were in the arts or a charity, he was known as someone you could depend on to help Houston. And he and Enron were probably the most powerful and popular CEO and company in Houston, an example of the way, you know, the new Houston.

After Enron blew apart, you know, we saw a completely different side of Ken Lay. He was angry and contemptuous of the prosecutors; he was kind of unable to control his hostile feelings. He felt injured by - and wrongly accused, and you saw that on the stand, day after day. The Ken Lay that everyone was expecting really never showed up during the trial. He was kind of transformed, I think, by what had happened to his company and him.

NEARY: How do you expect the news of his death will be received in Houston?

GOODWYN: I do think this will transform him to a more sympathetic figure than he has been since Enron went bankrupt.

NEARY: And do you expect that it's going to have any effect on the prison terms for other Enron defendants, the sentencing of Jeffrey Skilling?

GOODWYN: It's hard to say. You know, a death of such a prominent figure in this case I think is going to shake everybody. You know, how that plays out will be hard to know. But, I mean, I think it's possible it could affect the judge and the jury and the prosecutors. Hard to say.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for talking with us, Wade.

GOODWYN: You're quite welcome.

NEARY: NPR's Wade Goodwyn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
Wade Goodwyn
Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.
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