(3 of 6)
Watkins learned Enron was losing money on two equity investments: network-equipment supplier Avici lost 98% of its value, and another, New Power, an energy retailer that had Ken Lay on the board, dropped more than 80%. Because both firms were backed by Enron stock, Watkins knew their downfall was dragging down Enron too. None of that was being reflected in the company's public filings, as far as she could tell. As her lawyer Philip Hilder explains, "The numbers just didn't add up."
Already known as outspoken, Watkins didn't want to approach Skilling directly for fear of losing her job, Hilder says. "She thought it would be fruitless while he was there." When Skilling suddenly quit on Aug. 14, Lay called an all-employees meeting two days later and asked for comments from workers beforehand. That's when Watkins finally sat down to write a one-page anonymous letter on her computer at work. She dropped it in the box at headquarters the next day.
The letter laid out what many executives knew but no one had the courage to say. Watkins homed in on two sets of transactions called Condor and Raptor (Enron had a penchant for names inspired by Jurassic Park and Star Wars) and argued that the accounting treatment was unsound, if not dishonest. Enron had booked huge profits from these entities while its stock price soared in 2000, despite the fact that neither Condor nor Raptor had any hard assets. But now that Enron's price was dropping, the company had to note these devaluations or pour more money into the companies when cash was short. "It sure looks to the layman on the street that we are hiding losses in a related company and will compensate that company with Enron stock in the future."
But what gave the brief letter its power was its overwhelming sense of doom. "Skilling is resigning now for 'personal reasons' but I would think he wasn't having fun, looked down the road and knew this stuff was unfixable and would rather abandon ship now than resign in shame in two years."
At the Aug. 16 companywide meeting, Lay invited anyone troubled by Skilling's departure to meet with him. Four days later Watkins called a friend at Andersen and asked for advice. On Aug. 21 the friend drafted a memo detailing Watkins' concerns for Andersen auditors on the Enron account. Meanwhile, Watkins went to Lay seeking a meeting. The next day she met with the chairman.
The session was businesslike, and Lay seemed genuinely concerned. Watkins brought along a six-page letter detailing her worries, and Lay promised to have a team of lawyers review the controversial deals. But he decided to use Enron's law firm, Vinson & Elkins, despite Watkins' unease about a conflict of interest. Vinson & Elkins had been paid for work on Condor and Raptor transactions. But Lay went ahead with the review--whose scope he kept strictly limited.