Bush nominee's work for Enron at issueProposed attorney general may recuse self in prosecution
By DAVID IVANOVICH, Houston Chronicle
November 20, 2004
WASHINGTON - White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, President Bush's choice to be his next U.S. attorney general, may want to recuse himself from the Enron prosecutions if he takes over the reins of the Justice Department.
Gonzales did legal work for Enron in the early 1990s, while in private practice at Vinson & Elkins in Houston, which did a lot of legal work for the energy giant.
Gonzales helped Enron set up EOTT Energy Partners, a master limited partnership involved in gathering, transporting and trading crude oil, refined products and natural gas liquids.
His last billing for Enron-related work was in May 1994, noted Henry Reasoner, a partner with the firm. Enron collapsed seven years later.
Gonzales left Vinson & Elkins the following year to become then-Texas Gov. Bush's general counsel. He would later go on to serve as secretary of state and then as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court.
While serving on the bench, Gonzales received a $6,000 campaign contribution from Enron's now defunct political action committee, as well as $500 from an Enron employee, according to campaign records tracked by Austin-based Texans for Public Justice.
As attorney general, Gonzales would have the right to decide whether to distance himself from the Enron case.
White House officials refused to say whether Gonzales likely would recuse himself. An administration spokeswoman said all such questions will have to wait until Gonzales' nomination hearing.
If he does decided to stay out of the Enron matter, Gonzales would be following the lead of current Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Ashcroft, a former Republican senator from Missouri, received $57,499 in contributions from Enron during his unsuccessful effort to retain his seat in 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
One-time Enron Chief Executive Officer Ken Lay contributed $25,000 in soft money to Ashcroft's fund-raising committee, the Ashcroft Victory Fund.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to consider Gonzales' nomination early next year.
Because he had a direct conflict as performing legal work for the company, most observers think it highly likely he will steer clear of the case.
"There is no law that governs this," noted Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University. "There is no ethical principle that would preclude him from involvement in the Enron prosecutions."
But prudence, Lubet said, would suggest he "leave it to somebody else."
Steven Weiss with the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics said Gonzales and his advisers will have to evaluate the political calculus of the Enron case.
If he does distance himself, Gonzales could face more questions about why he feels the need to distance himself from a disgraced company.
"If he doesn't recuse himself and somehow acts in a way that's perceived to be in Enron's interests, he'll face accusations of doing a favor for a former supporter," Weiss said.