When you look over all the horrible things that happened in the collapse of Enron, it is difficult to choose one that would be most egregious. Jeff Skilling went to prison. Dr. Lay died before he could be sentenced. Ken Rice… Andy Fastow… there is so much destruction that the milestones all seem to blur together to create a single sustained crescendo of agony.
But this day, January 25, we can all agree, was the very worst day in all of Enron history.
About 2:15am on January 25, 2002, Cliff Baxter departed his home in Sugar Land and drove his black Mercedes down Palm Royale Boulevard. He stopped between two medians, where drivers might make a u-turn. He pulled out a small handgun, a .365 Magnum revolver, and shot himself in the right temple.
When he worked at Enron, Cliff Baxter was an executive vice president at Enron Corp, part of the core group of men who made Enron great. His last task before he resigned in May 01 was to sell international assets in the Raptors – a campaign called Project Summer. In Conspiracy of Fools, Eichenwald insists that Baxter was deeply frustrated by the slow pace of the sales but Baxter was not alive to speak for himself. It is unknown whether or not he was frustrated with his work. But that allegation is not the most heartbreaking.
In the movie Smartest Guys In The Room, Bethany McLean makes the slanderous, libelous statement that Cliff Baxter was manic/depressive. This is such an appalling allegation that during a Q & A at the showing of the movie at the River Oaks Theatre in Houston, Texas, Cliff Baxter’s widow stood up and asked Bethany about that statement. Carol Baxter did not cause a scene, of course, but she at least had the satisfaction of pushing back against the lies that were already beginning to accumulate about her husband.
Furthermore, McLean suggests that Baxter killed himself because “he would have to testify against his friends.” When Baxter passed away, not a single indictment had been issued. Not one formal accusation had been levied against anyone inside the organization. But that didn’t stop Bethany from stupidly speculating about the darkness inside the soul of a man she’d never met.
During Jeff Skilling’s congressional hearing, Rep. Cliff Stearns asked Skilling if before Cliff Baxter died, had the two had many conversations.
Skilling answered in the affirmative.
Stearns asked, “And were any of them relative to Enron?”
Skilling looked heartbroken for a moment before he answered yes. He said, “Cliff came over to my house and he says, ‘they’re calling us child molesters. And he says, ‘that will never wash off.’” The grief in his eyes is so naked it is difficult to look at, yet you can not look away.
I don’t know much about Cliff Baxter. I’ve intentionally kept myself ignorant about him; it seems the most respectful thing to do. But what I do know about him is that he, Ken Rice, and Jeff Skilling were a dream team of men – one of those magnificent teams that coalesce in a perfect storm of temperaments and abilities.
I miss knowing that he is in the world.