Are Enron executives sociopaths?

What do Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone have in common with Kenneth Lay and his Enron buddies Jeff Skilling and Andy Fastow, and why is it that the more I read about Lay & Co., the more Bugsy and Al keep coming to mind?

As I ponder that question, I find myself heading towards my “DSM IV” (“Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” – the psychiatrist’s bible) and looking up Anti-Social Personality Disorder, a.k.a. Sociopathic Behavior. I have no idea if a psychiatrist with in-depth knowledge of these men’s psyches would conclude that this diagnosis fits any of them, but some of the descriptions sure seem on target. For obvious reasons, my interest is in the Enron gang.

I read that sociopaths “tend to lack concern for other people’s feelings, be preoccupied with their own interests, and tend to have grandiose expressions of their own importance.”

Sounds right for guys who bail out of their collapsing company, while in the best “let them eat cake” tradition, employees are prevented from selling their stock.

Grandiosity? After six years in Enron’s business department, former employee John Allario comments that top executives “wanted to climb to the top of the mountain and pound their chest and crush anyone or anything that got in the way.”

Sociopaths share a “lack of regard for the truth.” This is a no-brainer. Enron rested on a foundation of lies and deceptions. In August 2001, with collapse around the corner, and after top execs had already cashed out to the tune of $1.1 billion in the three previous years, Ken Lay e-mailed his employees to reassure them that “our growth has never been more certain.”

I read on: Sociopaths “tend to be personable, charming, and engaging and are usually above average in intelligence.” No question, these guys were plenty smart. Take Kenny Boy – a poor Missouri child, he made Phi Beta Kappa, got a Ph.D. in Economics and made hundreds of millions of dollars. (I don’t know what motivates Sherron Watkins to say that he didn’t know what was going on – “was duped” – but I don’t buy that story.)

As for personality, Skilling and Fastow don’t seem to score so high, but Lay is apparently a real charmer. Makes sense – would President Bush have become friends with some uncouth boor?

Sociopaths often “lack concern regarding society’s rules and regulations” and engage in “unlawful behavior.” Here the Enron boys’ story takes a special twist. It’s possible they didn’t engage in unlawful behavior for the simple reason that they used their money to get rid of rules and regulations they didn’t like.

Remember last year’s California “energy crisis” that cost Californians about $50 billion? Enron lobbyists played an important role in the deregulation that led to it. (When Skilling visited in June 2001, a disgruntled Californian flung a pie in his face.)

Heard about all those subsidiaries Enron created to keep the company’s debts off the books so stocks would stay high – at least until top executives could cash in? Almost a third were located in tax havens like the Cayman Islands. Shortly after his inauguration, George W. dropped Bill Clinton’s efforts to crack down on these tax havens.

Could this, and numerous measures taken to lift energy regulations, be related to Lay’s and Enron’s contributions of over $1 million to Bush’s campaign and to the Republican National Committee? (They also dropped a bit of money here and there on Democrats and got some favors in return, but knew which party to turn to for deregulation, smaller government, and minimal taxes for the super rich.)

Some good could come of the Enron mess if it helps Americans understand the need for a strong federal government to protect us from greedy executives who can do to any of us what Enron did to its employees, customers, and stockholders.

If government does not protect us, corporations – which are in many ways more powerful and more of a threat – are also free to pollute our air and to hook our children on tobacco. We need campaign finance reform and strictly enforced federal regulations as much as we need police protection from big-time criminals like the legendary Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone.

Myriam Miedzian Ph.D., a New York-based researcher, is the author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking The Link Between Masculinity and Violence (Anchor Books).