Enron collapsed nearly 20 years ago, but chances are something you use today was affected by emails sent by 150 of the company's top employees. These emails — about meetings and energy markets but also affairs, divorces, and fraud — have helped create new technologies, fight terrorism, and added to our understanding of how we communicate. But should these emails have been released in the first place? PLUS: "Uncut" reveals Enron's former CFO's second act.
Produced by Dan Bobkoff, Amy Pedulla, Jennifer Sigl, and Sarah Wyman.
- How software developed from Enron's emails could help prevent the next Enron, according to its former CFO
Note: This transcript may contain errors.
DAN BOBKOFF: Imagine you're working for a big company. Like, say, number 7 on the Fortune 500 list. Oh and it's around the year 2000. No Facebook. No Gmail. We're not thinking much about privacy. And then the company you work for goes bust in spectacular fashion.
KPRC: Well, it was the corporate fraud case that sent shockwaves across Houston and the entire country, the fall of Enron…
FOX26: Congressional hearings begin this morning in the Enron investigation…
DB: And then some regulator in Washington releases your work emails. All of them.
So all of a sudden, a lot of things in your life just became public.
EMAIL ONE: July 28, 1999. 1:42 pm. Attached are the above-referenced documents. Hard copies will follow.
DB: But also some perhaps less routine business dealings.
EMAIL TWO: Subject: Re: Dark Star. To further insulate the Coal Group and you from any claim that Enron misused the information, I suggest that you transfer the information to me and I will hold it for safekeeping.
DB: And some cliche bad workplace behavior.
EMAIL THREE: No subject. i am heading to new orleans this weekend to do some partying. no uropa, just sluts in the quarter.
DB: And let's not forget the classic '90s chain emails
EMAIL FOUR: Hope you're having a pleasant first week of 1999. Thought I would forward this on… TOP 22 SIGNS THAT YOU HAVE HAD TOO MUCH OF THE '90s: 22. Cleaning up the dining area means getting the fast-food bags out of the back seat of your car.
DB: There were even some exchanges with coworkers that really shouldn't have been in your work inbox.
EMAIL EXCHANGE: No subject.
Let me know when you are leaving
I will be leaving probably in about 30-45 minutes
Walk me out? I'll give you a big wet kiss
But I want more
I'll give you all you want
DB: The emails you just heard read aloud (by actors) are real emails. They're just a few of the hundreds of thousands sent around the year 2000 by some of Enron's highest ranking employees.
And when these emails became public, for the first time there was a database of thousands of real emails sent by real people that was available to the public, and researchers… and at least one podcast host.
But these emails aren't just a curiosity. They're not just a time capsule. I bet something you used today was touched by these emails. They've become a huge part of all our lives.
From Business Insider and Stitcher, this is Household Name. Brands you know, stories you don't. I'm Dan Bobkoff.
Enron collapsed because of greed and corruption and fraud. But the emails Enron employees sent and received have had an astounding afterlife. They were used to create Siri and develop spam filtering and artificial intelligence. They've helped us understand gender and power.
But at what cost? What happens when so much of our technology is based on the writings of some fallen energy tycoons? And should the emails have been released in the first place?
Stay with us.
DB: These days, Enron is pretty much shorthand for corporate scandal.
But back in the '90s, Enron was an energy trading company based in Houston. It bought, sold, and traded natural gas, electricity, and also apparently pulp and paper.
But the thing Enron is really famous for is how it collapsed.
In 2001, it was the biggest bankruptcy ever at that point.
It looked suspicious. Because the company was telling everyone it was profitable and successful. And then out of nowhere, it went bust. The SEC investigated. Prosecutors pounced. A number of top executives went to prison for fraud.
NEWS: Guilty verdicts in the biggest case of corporate fraud in history.
NEWS: Lawyers for Jeffery Skilling and Kenneth Lay threw around complicated notions about margin calls and shortselling…
DB: But the reason we have access to thousands of Enron's emails is because of something else.
Something Enron did in California.
California became one of the first states to deregulate its energy markets in the mid '90s. The idea was to introduce market forces and competition. You know, lower prices and such.
Enron had lobbied hard for this. And then, after deregulation came into play, mysteriously, California started experiencing serious energy shortages. And whenever that happened, Enron and some other companies just coincidentally raked in a whole bunch of cash.
PAT WOOD: The worst one was physical withholding. So you'd just say, 'I'm not going to run my power plant tomorrow.'
DB: Pat Wood was an energy regulator with FERC… the Federal Energy Regulatory commission. It was his job to help investigate this.
PW: Now, no one was dumb enough to say, 'I'm not going to run it so I can make money off of the scarcity price.' But that's what happens. I mean, when you don't run your power plant, which they were obligated to do.
DB: Wood says power suppliers would overplay maintenance issues. Exaggerate problems so they could shut down their plants.
PW: What kind of smart engineer's going to actually go question that? I mean, you really had to get people under oath to really figure all this out.
DB: There were other tricks. Enron would buy power in California, move it to Nevada, and then sell it back at a profit.
Enron was making bank, but by the second half of 2000, the tricks turned into a full on energy crisis. Electricity prices in California shot up 800% at one point. There were rolling blackouts affecting more than a million people.
Now, Pat Wood is a free markets guy. He was all for de-regulating California's energy market. But what Enron did with that freedom is not what he had in mind when he was promoting free markets.
PW: I'm a big passionate defender of competition, but boy I'm ruthless against people who want to eff it up.
DB: So FERC investigated Enron and the market manipulators, and through the investigation got tons of documents. Like these memos describing in detail how Enron planned to manipulate the California markets to make lots of money.
PW: They were really pretty shocking. I mean, for one who loves competition in markets, it just kind of made me nauseated because I thought, 'Man, is this the enterprise that I helped create, was this house of cards? I mean, this is ridiculous.' So I walked down the hall and showed it to my other three commissioners and I said, 'you know, I got a problem with this.'
DB: During the investigation, Pat Wood and FERC were mostly focused on the memos. But they had also gotten a whole lot of emails from Enron.
PW: It was huge, it was thousands of… I don't remember if it's terabytes or whatever the word after tera is, but it was huge.
DB: So what were you finding in these emails that you wanted people to see?
PW: You know, 95% of them were about nothing that we were interested in. But it's hard to read. I mean, it was huge amounts of emails, so the other question was, there might be something that somebody finds here from reviewing this stuff that we might have missed.
DB: FERC had to decide what to do with all this data. In 2003, Pat Wood was pissed about what Enron had done. So he kept thinking about "transparency." Just put it all out there and let the public see what this company did.
DB: But I'm sure behind the scenes, it must have been a hard decision to decide whether to release all these emails with all this personal information, and irrelevant things—
PW: Yeah, I will tell you honestly Dan, that that issue was not front and center as much as it would be today, for example.
DB: So Pat Wood and the FERC commissioners made a fateful decision. They just dumped the entire email archive on the internet. All the Enron emails about gas trading and meeting scheduling. And also the divorces and affairs and talk of parties. It was all there.
I've heard different versions of what happened next. Some people say the emails were cleaned up. That someone went through and got rid of social security numbers, bank account info, and stuff like that. Other people say Enron employees were actually given a chance to go through and flag things they thought should be redacted.
But either way, Pat Wood admits FERC didn't try that hard to clean the emails up. And then after they were public, he just kind of forgot about the emails. Until I called a few weeks ago.
DB: So what did you think would happen, when you put all these emails out in the world?
PW: Never dreamed… I mean, when you told me… when did we talk? Last week. When you told me what had gone on, I can't tell you how much I've been looking on the web since you pointed me in that direction. There is so much on the web about this information…and I had no idea that that would be what would come of this…
DB: The emails took on a life of their own. Far beyond what anyone at Enron or FERC could have imagined. Artificial intelligence, voice assistance, counterterrorism software. All have roots in the Enron emails. How did that happen? That's in a minute.
DB: We're back.
After FERC released the Enron emails back in 2003, they just kind of sat there. Even though they were public, no one was really reading them… because they were a MESS.
Like, imagine you log into your email and you need to find one specific message. Except there's no search function. You can't organize by date or sender or subject line. There's spam everywhere.
That's what the Enron emails were like. And there were like half a million of them.
But this is where the Enron emails' strange afterlife begins.
First, some academics bought the emails from FERC. It became known as the Enron Corpus. Corpus by the way, is my new favorite word. The Enron Corpus cost ten grand. Then the researchers got to work cleaning it up, paring it down, and organizing it into something that could be catalogued and searched and studied. And then, they went wild.
They wrote papers. Ran experiments. Invented whole new areas of research. Like… network science.
PJ LAMBERSON: My name is PJ Lamberson, and I'm an assistant professor in the communication department at UCLA. My research focuses on social networks and collaboration.
DB: We called PJ Lamberson because he was actually our producer Sarah Wyman's professor.
SARAH WYMAN: Yeah, and that is a first day of class I will never forget.
DB: What happened?
SW: It was just so cool! Like, we all came in, and on the board he had projected a network that was made up of the Enron emails. And so what we're looking at is a bunch of dots, basically, arranged in a pattern. And every dot represents an email address in the Corpus. And you can tell so much about Enron just from looking at this map, Dan.
DB: Like what?
SW: Some of the dots are bigger than other dots, which mean that they're getting more emails.
DB: So, are those the powerful people?
SW: Yeah. And you can also tell that some people are getting like way more emails than they're sending, which is also kind of indicative of them being more important maybe? But then, the really cool thing… like the reason I still remember this class 4 years after the fact, is that if you take a step back and just look at the entire network, you see something that's really interesting.
DB: What's that?
SW: So the way the map is organized, you can see projects. Because, you know, people at work will email back and forth when they're working on something.
DB: Like we did with this episode.
SW: Exactly. But the thing is, at Enron, they were not making podcasts, Dan. Some people were actually doing some really sketchy, illegal things. And on this map, you can actually visually see the difference. Like, the projects that were totally above board and fine look completely different from the ones that were shady.
PL: I guess the way I would describe it, if you look at the network where people are talking about an illicit or illegal project, it looks like a really tight ball with a few little spikes sticking out of it. So what that's showing is that, for those illegal projects, that the communication is really concentrated among a core of individuals, and they're not sharing that information or dispersing information about that project with other parts of the organization.
SW: Okay, and this is the best part. Because a computer has identified this. It's like a magic trick.
The computer just has all of the data that's in the Corpus, which in and of itself doesn't actually make that much sense to anyone and it just looks like a huge mess, but once you run an algorithm on that data, it's like shining a blacklight on all of the corruption that was happening at Enron. Like, you can just see it laid out bare in front of you in this network.
DB: Yeah, so this is clearly really useful to people for a lot of things.
SW: Yeah! And there's so much cool stuff that's happening with this technology. Like, people are using it to predict how viruses spread through populations. Because the software can identify the people within a group who are most likely to spread something to the rest of the group, fast.
DB: So, like the guy who's just going around shaking lots of peoples' hands will like show up in this algorithm.
SW: Right, but maybe one of the most interesting applications of this technology is it's actually being used to identify terrorist cells. So like if you have phone records from a group of people, you can run these algorithms on those phone records and they can detect kind of abnormal patterns of communication. And you can see where the terrorist cells are.
DB: Okay. So the technology we developed using emails from Enron is now being used to fight terror.
SW: Yeah, it's being used for all kinds of stuff.
DB: The Enron emails have been a huge opportunity for researchers like Sarah's professor. They're publicly available. There's no copyright. Researchers can swap them between institutions because no one owns them.
But they've also been a really big deal for any research or technology that involves language. Because these emails THIS CORPUS is a rare example of unfiltered, uncensored, totally organic human communication.
OWEN RAMBOW: So the bankruptcy of Enron was really the wonderful stroke of luck for researchers interested in conversation.
DB: This is Owen Rambow. He works at an artificial intelligence company called Elemental Cognition. Used to teach at Columbia. He's been a part of lots of different research projects involving the Enron emails, and a lot of them involve using the Corpus to train computers to understand human language.
OR: It's unique. There's nothing quite like it. And it's real, you know these are real people who are conversing, not in order to create data for linguists, but in order to achieve their goals, whatever it was, some work related goal or just tell each other jokes or whatever.
DB: Before the Enron emails, researchers like Rambow mostly had to work with stilted conversations or text from old newspapers.
OR: One typical example is that people, or students are brought into a lab and play a game against each other and engage in conversation as part of the game playing. So they're real conversations but they're very limited and they're not naturally occurring.
DB: But these Enron emails were what people really say to one another, especially when they don't think anyone is reading over their shoulder.
And they've taught Rambow… and computers… a lot about how humans communicate. Like, based on syntax and word choice, you can predict if an email's sender is male or female. A boss or an underling.
Bosses write shorter emails. Male bosses tend to write direct emails like "give me the report by Monday." Female bosses tend to say things like "would you be able to finish the report by Monday?"
OR: I can say something like, 'it's hot in here' and it can either be a speech act to inform you of this fact or it can be a speech act to request that you turn on the air conditioning.
DB: It is hot in here. I'm sorry.
OR: Yep. It's actually okay.
DB: These are the kinds of problems that cause bugs in artificial intelligence. Machines aren't great at interpreting nuance or tone or intent. They need… practice. And the Enron Corpus is like one giant, perfect training ground for developing those skills.
It's helped train spam filters. Hey, the Enron emails had a lot of spam.
We Can Connect You To The World's Rich & Famous!
Capture The Attention Of Millionaires!
DB: The emails played a role in the development of Siri. Google reportedly used them when it was developing smart compose in Gmail. If you've used Gmail in the last year or so you'll know what I'm talking about. This is that thing where it predicts what it thinks you want to say next. Sometimes it's really helpful. But early versions had a bad habit of suggesting the phrase "I love you" a little too often.
If you're a researcher, you could spend hours sifting, organizing, studying these emails… and come to think of them purely as data. And then you might come across one like this.
EMAIL FIVE: November 26, 2001. 7:23 pm. No subject. So…. you were looking for a one night stand after all … ??
DB: Whoever wrote that email probably didn't want it to have a long legacy.
DB: Did you feel any ethical qualms using the Enron emails?
OL: I relied on the process having worked, the process being that people were given the chance to withdraw emails. This said, I had my doubts because in one of the releases… The very first email you saw was a very personal email, which probably the sender didn't or the receiver more likely didn't want spread around.
DB: A few years ago, Owen Rambow was on a train in Texas. He and his husband were sitting in the dining car.
OR: And we just started talking to the people who were added to our table and they were from Houston. And I was working on Enron day in and day out. So I just said, oh did you work for Enron? Just like that. And the guy said yes.
DB: It was kind of like meeting a celebrity. This guy was one of the 150 in the Corpus!
OR: And that was just sort of such a fascinating, weird coincidence. And it reminded me that this Corpus, which we give to our computers and run through algorithms and reduce to numbers and correlations, there really are real people at the other end. And you can meet them in Amtrak trains in Texas and we then gossiped a little bit about other people who are mentioned in the Enron Corpus who sort of almost seemed like people I know.
DB: So much of what we know about the world and how it works was somehow learned through this Corpus. So much of our technology was developed using the Corpus. But Owen Rambow is right. These aren't just data points. These aren't just emails. They're real people. At one energy company at one period of time right before it went bust. And that raises all sorts of red flags.
That's in a minute.
DB: We're back.
There are two really obvious ethical issues with using the Enron emails for anything. First of all, the people who wrote them did not sign up to be part of an academic study. They did not give researchers or robots permission to comb through all of their old conversations.
And we'll get to that.
But first, there's another problem here.
AMANDA LEVENDOWSKI: The biases of the people writing the emails could become the biases of the AI system that's trained on them.
DB: Amanda Levendowski teaches at NYU and studies how bias creeps into technology. And she's worried that a ton of our artificial intelligence is based at least in part on the emails written by 150 people at an energy company that went bust because of FRAUD.
AL: First of all, they're not geographically representative. A lot of those emails were from people based in the Houston office. It's not going to be representative in terms of corporate culture, because it was a Houston-based oil and gas company, and because it's 150 senior executives at this company, you're not going to have the kind of gender or racial diversity that you might expect at a different sort of company.
DB: And if you're looking for evidence of this bias… you don't have to look any further than the emails themselves. Like there's one email chain where someone sends an article about Bill Clinton's dog Buddy getting hit by a car. The Enron official writes back…
EMAIL SIX: That is a shame for the dawg! I am very happy about Clinton's grief!
DB: There are emails about taking on the World Wildlife Fund.
EMAIL SEVEN: Subject: WWF. Remember, this is the group that publicly announced that Enron has gotten away with murder for years and we are going to get them.
DB: These are the emails underpinning a lot of our artificial intelligence.
AL: If there are misogynistic jokes or shows of power in particular emails, those same implicit biases can become encoded in the AI that's trained on that Corpus. Computer scientists tend to put this another way. They call it garbage in, garbage out.
DB: So, who wrote this stuff? I wanted to talk to someone who worked at Enron at the time, who actually wrote some of these emails. All the names are there. And I found that a lot of them list Enron as a former employer on their LinkedIn profiles. So I started calling.
[SOUND OF CALLING]
And I hit a lot of dead ends.
[SOUND OF CALL FAILING]
While I was searching though, I met someone else was obsessed with the emails. A guy named Sam Lavigne. He's an artist and educator who has used the Enron emails in his own work. And his art deals with these questions. It forces people, like me, to really think about why reading through the corpus makes us feel so uncomfortable.
SAM LAVIGNE: So one of my favorite series of emails to read it from the archive is between two people who were married and they both worked at Enron. And they're going through a divorce because she cheated on him, I think. You can read their whole sort of correspondence.
DB: What do you see in these emails?
SL: Oh, you know, it's stuff, 'I saw you today from a distance and I thought about what we used to have and I'm so sorry. And I hope we can be friends again one day,' you know? And you know, stuff like that. Right?
DB: Do you feel like you're watching a relationship disintegrate?
SL: Yeah. It's also something you shouldn't read really. You know? It's invasive.
DB: Yeah. I mean there's something like, I feel kind of dirty reading these emails even though it's so long ago. It's been public for so long. Yet it feels like, 'Am I just a voyeur here?'
SL: It is very voyeuristic.
DB: I tried to reach that couple Sam Lavigne was talking about… to ask them how they felt… but I got a voicemail.
[SOUND OF CALLING]
DB: Hi, Dan Bobkoff calling from Business Insider in New York…
DB: Eventually I reached the guy by email. He said he's not angry about his emails being released, but he didn't want to do an interview.
Sam Lavigne, the artist, has been living with these emails for a few years now. Along with his colleague Tega Brain, he used the emails as the basis of an experimental art project.
SL: So our project is called the Good Life. In the Good Life, you get the opportunity to receive all of the emails from the Enron archive, direct to your inbox, in the order that they were originally sent and with the appropriate amount of time between each email.
DB: Apparently a few hundred people have signed up to get their actual inboxes clogged with old Enron emails. Lavigne even did it himself.
DB: Do you have this on your main email account?
DB: It's not filtered or anything?
SL: No. No. So I read every single one.
DB: Oh my God. How much time do you spend a day on this?
SL: Not that long because a lot of them are really short, you know? So it doesn't take that long to read all of them. And… it's a really interesting experience, I think. Because it's sort of like a lot of times you'll see the email come in and it'll be like, 'Meeting in room 10 in 15 minutes.' And you're like, 'Oh, oh no, I've missed the meeting. I didn't know about that meeting.' Then you'll open up the email. You're like, 'Oh right, right. This happened in 1999 actually. It's okay. I didn't actually have to go to that meeting.'
DB: Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, some of the Enron emails get caught in Lavigne's spam filters.
DB: How do you feel about your emails getting caught in spam filters that might've been trained on the very emails that you were trying to send?
SL: I think it's really nice. (laughs)
DB: It works, I guess.
SL: I think it's great.
DB: I still wanted to know how it felt to be someone whose emails were released in the Corpus… whose every word at Enron is now parsed and dissected by researchers without their consent.
[SOUND OF PHONE RINGING]
Eventually… someone picked up.
MITCHELL TAYLOR: Hello?
DB: Hi… is this Mitchell Taylor?
DB: Hi, Dan Bobkoff from Business Insider in New York, how are you?
MT: Good, how are you?
DB: Good, thank you, so I'm calling you for an interesting reason…
DB: Mitch Taylor was a managing director at Enron. He's also the guy Owen Rambow ran into on a train a few years back.
MT: Owen Rambow?
DB: I had to jog his memory.
MT: Oh! Oh, oh oh! What's his last name?
DB: Rambow. R-A-M-B-O-W.
MT: I do remember this now!
DB: Okay so I had him on the phone—this was my big shot. I wanted to know how he felt when all these emails were dumped on the web back in 2003.
MT: Yeah, no you would have thought some privacy advocates would have come to our defense, but at that point, being with Enron, there was no one coming to your defense. No one gave a shit at that point. We were the evil empire, so everyone was happy for any bad things that happened to Enron people.
DB: He told me that there was so much news about Enron, so much BAD PRESS about Enron back then, that the email dump didn't really register. It was just another thing that happened.
I've read some of Mitch Taylor's emails by the way. Most of them… sound like work emails.
EMAIL: Subject: Thanks for the update. With regard to further interference from the PUCN, and the comment that the PUCN must approve each generation divestiture of Sierra…
DB: You get the idea…
MT: I don't think I've ever gone and looked at which ones they had… I certainly didn't have a mistress, I didn't have any criminal stuff going on. Now, whether I've passed along an inappropriate joke, I may have. I tend to be rather sarcastic at times in email, but that aspect of it has never come back to bite me in any way, at least that I've seen or that I'm aware of.
DB: When I first heard about this story, I remember thinking how weird and cool it is that emails from Enron of all companies have been so important in our lives. That the company died, but the emails live on. But the more I dug into it, the weirder I started to feel about the Corpus.
I really shouldn't be able to read about strangers' divorces and affairs. I shouldn't have access to someone's daycare scheduling, even if it happened two decades ago.
But on the other hand, I use Siri. I like when Gmail suggests what I was going to say so I don't have to type it out. I think it's nice that some real good, some human progress came out of the Enron collapse.
But at what cost?
I really wanted to know what Pat Wood thinks about all this now. After all, he's the guy who released them in the first place, back when he was a regulator. And he told me he's lost sleep over it.
PW: Well, it was hard because I sat there and go, you know, it was just… you know, the impact on… Now that I've been through privacy breaches on my own and I just thought, 'Man, I was a huge accomplice in doing that to a lot of people,' a lot of whom live in the town where I now live. There's probably a lot of people whose privacy was impacted significantly by what I did, who live in my area code.
DB: He said that if he could do it over again, he'd probably release a lot of the emails, but would have taken much more care to scrub out the personal stuff. To protect the people in there who were just collateral damage.
DB: What would you say to them?
PW: I'm sorry. You know, if you didn't do anything wrong, you probably don't have anything to be ashamed of, and if you did something wrong damn it, I got you. But for all those people in the middle who just had a normal expectation of privacy of just kind of their personal affairs. Not personal. Their business affairs and how they would be viewed. You know, I think that's… you know, I wouldn't want that. Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you. I wouldn't probably want that done to me like that.
DB: Alright we're not done yet because we have some late breaking developments as we were reporting this piece. Let's cue the Uncut music.
We haven't done one of these in a while… As you may know, Uncut is the segment where we bring back things that got cut from the episode but we can't stop thinking about and so I've brought Sarah Wyman…
SARAH WYMAN: Hello
DB: …and Jenni Sigl…
JENNI SIGL: Hi.
DB: …producers of our show, because I have to tell them this story that is… that I think is nuts and I hope they agree. So I couldn't stop thinking about something Mitch Taylor told me when we were talking.
SW: And Mitch Taylor was the guy who was in the Enron emails.
MT: Hey now, I can't imagine he would talk to you, but along this line, a more interesting angle may be what Andy Fastow was doing.
DB: So, remember, Andy Fastow was Enron's CFO. He's the guy who actually designed and carried out a lot of the ways Enron hid losses from investors. He actually spent five years in prison.
DB: He got out in 2011. And Mitch Taylor told me that he ran into Fastow one day in Texas…
SW: As one does. (laughs)
DB: Right, they were out walking literally they ran into each other and he was surprised to hear what Fastow is up to now. And I have to say I was surprised too. And it brings our story full circle because Andy Fastow is involved in a company that's all about email.
JS: The irony…
ANDY FASTOW: Hi, Dan, thanks for having me on your show. My name is Andy Fastow. I'm the former CFO of Enron Corp.
DB: On the day before deadline, this interview falls into my lap. And who better to ask about this than Andy Fastow. So this is his story. Andy Fastow gets out of prison in 2011, and since then he's been on a kind of apology tour.
AF: I consider myself one of the people most responsible for Enron's failure. I'm ashamed and embarrassed about my role and I believe what I did was wrong, unethical, and illegal. And for those I've harmed by actions at Enron, I apologize.
JS: Wow he was so candid.
DB: Yeah and I mean I think this was sincere but he's also been trying to rehabilitate his image, and as part of that, for the last few years he's been giving talks all over the world. And these talks are to you know, groups of accountants. One time it was to a group of fraud examiners. And in 2016…
JF: I was giving a talk in Amsterdam and after the talk I was approached by two of the founders of KeenCorp.
JS: Wait, what's KeenCorp?
DB: Yeah so KeenCorp is this startup from The Netherlands. And back when Fastow was giving this talk, it was developing software that actually scans employee emails.
SW: Uh… I do not know how I feel about that.
JS: Go on, go on.
DB: Yeah, yeah. So the software is supposed to analyze the mood of a company's employees. They say… their whole argument here is that you give your employees a survey and they might be everything's great, but in reality they're feeling stressed and tense and they're not really telling you what's really going on.
SW: Mhm… and spying on them by reading their email will definitely help with those stressed feelings.
DB: Yeah I mean it's… it's a robot reading the emails but yeah, I hear you. And so it was working on this artificial intelligence software that would look for subtle changes in tone and word choice that might signal stress or tension inside the company. Which they say is often a sign of risk to the company. And so if you were developing email scanning software, what might you use to test it?
JS: I don't know, maybe…
SW: Oh my gosh the Enron emails!
JS: Are you thinking… Yeah, the Enron, I think that's a good… yeah, that makes sense.
DB: You are correct and so that's what they did. And to the developers, it seemed like the software was working. When they scanned the Enron emails from the year 2000, you could actually see this steady increase in tension as you might expect as things started to go sour at Enron. But the developers looked a little more closely and they saw something that was really strange. There was this spike in anxiety way earlier, in 1999, and they couldn't find any reason for it.
AF: At the time they were concerned that maybe there was a problem with the algorithm. It turns out the algorithm was spot on.
DB: The developers had gone to Fastow's talk and they'd gone up to him after the talk because they wanted to ask him, what was happening behind the scenes in those days in 1999.
SW: They're like, 'Hello. Why was everyone so stressed out at Enron… in 1999?'
AF: And the problem was they couldn't explain why it had happened. And I looked at it and I asked them the dates of the movement in the data and these dates corresponded exactly to the approval of the structured finance deal that I put in place, that I was responsible for, that ultimately became the focus of the Wall Street Journal and the SEC 30 months later.
DB: Yeah and you know what he says is at the time he wasn't stressed about this. He thought he was doing the right thing. The board approved it unanimously, so you would think they were like totally behind this. But the software had identified that a lot of people who knew about this arrangement were feeling tense about it, even if they weren't saying so publicly.
JS: Wow… So it was sort of… the technology picked up that something was about to go awry.
SW: In retrospect, yeah.
DB: And so the company KeenCorp had their answer. The software was working. But Andy Fastow is hearing all this and he's getting really excited about this software. Because he believes if it had existed in 1999, and if Enron had used it, the way things turned out might have been different.
AF: But if they had seen this KeenCorp the next day, this data that said that the top 150 people in the company think this is a terrible decision but they're not telling you, I believe the board would have reconsidered their decision. And history would have been very different if they had reconsidered that decision. Because then there would have been no Wall Street Journal article about this deal. The Wall Street Journal articles about this deal. The Wall Street Journal articles triggered the SEC investigation. History would have been much different if this tool had been available in 1999.
SW: Wait, but couldn't they also just have like not broken the law and history would have been different?
DB: Well, I mean, his point is that they thought what they were doing was sort of like okay but maybe looked bad? Like Jeff Skilling said the biggest risk to us is Wall Street Journal risk. Meaning that, like, it's bad for their reputation, it looks shady. But they didn't necessarily believe they were breaking the law—
SW: But so if they'd known that all of their employees were super stressed out about this and unhappy, they might have had like a… like a sanity check and been like 'oh, maybe we shouldn't…'
DB: That's what Andy Fastow thinks in 2019. Now in 1999, even if there were software telling you this, I don't know if I'm convinced that they'd be like 'actually, on second thought, people are feeling kind of stressed about this, maybe we should completely change our business plans!' But you know, like this is what Andy believes. And like I think he's sincere. That he's trying to right some of his wrongs and his way… like one way that he does this is is that he actually gets involved with this company, KeenCorp.
SW: Wait, are you serious?
AF: Yes, I invested in the company when I saw what this software can do. I'm committed to using the… the time I have to try to prevent other Enrons from happening.
DB: And I should also say that he's a consultant for KeenCorp. And I found that really interesting, and I wanted to know how he feels about his life taking this unexpected turn.
DB: What do you think about the fact that in the late '90s and early 2000s you wrote a whole bunch of emails like a lot of people did. And then those emails go on to be used by researchers and people in technology and now it comes full circle and these emails have had a second life and you're working with those emails again?
AF: Well I hadn't really thought about that, but look, I can't change the legacy I was part of at Enron. I wish I could but I can't. But if anything good can come out of that legacy. I want to be part of something good that comes out it.
DB: And I think he really believes that this software and working with this company is some kind of redemption. Now, I don't know if I want some software using my emails like some kind of mood ring. And even Fastow said that at first he thought it was a little Minority Report-ish… and I can imagine also having Fastow as like your consultant and a sort of spokesperson might turn some companies off?
SW: It seems like sort of a weird choice, for sure.
DB: But I also can't think of a more fitting ending to this story than Andy Fastow's emails being his legacy in this other way.
That's Sarah Wyman, Amy Pedulla, Jennifer Sigl, and there's also me. I think I was [email protected] for a bit there.
Speaking of email, if you're not now afraid of email, we love hearing from you by email! You can write to us at [email protected], or share your thoughts in our Facebook group… because there's never ever been a privacy issue there… just search for Household Name Podcast.
And we have a new issue of our newsletter coming out this week! Subscribe at the link in our show notes. And while you're there you can also leave us a five star review and a comment on Apple Podcasts.
Special thanks to Jessica Leber, whose piece in the MIT Technology Review actually inspired this episode.
William Antonelli, Anthony Baffo, Adam Burakowski, Tyler Chin, Clayton Dyer, Rich Feloni, Alli Guerra, Brett Jordan, Christian Nguyen, Marisa Palmer, Alyssa Powell, and Grace Weinstein were our fine actors reading the Enron emails.
Sound design and original music by Casey Holford and John DeLore.
Our editor is Gianna Palmer.
The executive producers are Chris Bannon and me.
Household is a production of Insider Audio.
Source: Read Full Article