PAUL HOLMES: A silver lining emerges from the clouds of Enron'sdebacle: the vitality of free speech

Enron was a generous campaign contributor to Democratic and GOP

candidates alike, but a particularly loyal supporter of President

Bush.



It has given more than $550,000 to Mr. Bush for various

campaigns. Enron executives Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling each donated

$100,000 for Bush's inaugural, says the Center for Responsive

Politics.



As such, Enron provides a convincing argument that campaign finance

reform is just not needed.



If that conclusion raises a few eyebrows - and given the wide opinion

that Enron improperly influenced energy policy, it might - consider

this: In November, Enron president Greg Whalley repeatedly called a

senior Treasury official asking for help in arranging loans that would

keep Enron afloat. He got none. The Treasury Department could have

justified intervention - this government will bail out failing

enterprises, as its post-September 11 gift to the airlines proved - and

Enron's collapse would ultimately hurt ordinary workers and

shareholders.



That's not the only case of the company seeking help and finding the

door shut in its face. Curtis Hebert, former Federal Energy Regulatory

Commission chairman, recalls being asked by Lay to change his position

on energy deregulation in exchange for Enron's support. He too

declined.



And what of the regulatory environment Enron operated in? It was lax,

but I don't feel that laxness was bought and paid for. To the contrary,

I think those responsible for loosening regulations were motivated by

ideological, not financial concerns: they ran and voted as pro-business

conservatives.



This issue ought to concern PR people because the ability of

corporations to express their political views - whether directly or

through the support of a like-minded candidate - is a First Amendment

issue. So-called reform will beget other restrictions on corporate

speech. Imagine being forbidden from addressing issues such as free

trade or environmental regulations because ad or PR campaigns focused on

those topics could be seen as favoring one candidate for office over

another.



(If that seems far-fetched, consider that activists have already sued to

stop Nike airing ads promoting fair-labor practices in developing

countries, claiming they breach truth in advertising statutes.)



The other encouraging thing about the Enron story, for those of us

reluctant to trade away free speech for a supposedly "cleaner" political

process, is that it reinforces the transparency of the current system.

Within days of Enron's collapse, we knew exactly how much it donated,

and to whom.



That gives all of us freedom to decide on our own whether our elected

officials betrayed us, and why.



Isn't it better to have more information, through this sort of

transparency, than less, because companies aren't allowed to partake

fully in the process?



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