The collapse of the energy company Enron in December 2001 precipitated what would become the most complex white-collar crime investigation in the FBI’s history.

Top officials at the Houston-based company cheated investors and enriched themselves through complex accounting gimmicks like overvaluing assets to boost cash flow and earnings statements, which made the company even more appealing to investors.

The Investigation 

When Enron declared bankruptcy in December 2001 and took with it the nest eggs of thousands of employees and stockholders, the FBI Houston Field Office assigned two agents to investigate.

Within weeks, the number of agents and support staff assigned to the case grew to 45, many hand-picked from field offices around the country for their expertise in traversing even the most circuitous paper trails.

The sheer magnitude of the case prompted the creation of the multi-agency Enron Task Force, a unique blend of investigators and analysts from the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation Division, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and prosecutors from the Department of Justice.

In January 2002, agents executed a consent search of Enron’s 50-story corporate headquarters building. The search lasted nine days as investigators unearthed critical documents and emerged with more than 400 boxes of evidence. At the same time, agents conducted more than 100 interviews that helped identify fresh leads for investigators.

In February 2002, Enron’s board of directors issued findings from its own internal investigation—the Powers Report, named for William Powers Jr., head of the special investigation committee that wrote it—that said Enron executives reaped millions by using a web of partnerships to generate false profits and hiding Enron’s true debt. The Powers Report “was a gold mine,” said retired Supervisory Special Agent Michael E. Anderson, who led the Enron Task Force in Houston.

Boxes of evidence in an office at Enron headquarters in Houston in 2002. More than 3,000 boxes of evidence and more than four terabytes of digitized data were collected by FBI agents in the weeks after Enron declared bankruptcy on December 2, 2001.
More than 3,000 boxes of evidence and more than four terabytes of digitized data were collected by agents in the weeks after Enron declared bankruptcy.

Agents who specialize in recovering forensic evidence from computers collected more than four terabytes (imagine 4,000 copies of an encyclopedia) of digitized data, including e-mail from more than 600 employees. Meanwhile, the Regional Computer Forensics Lab in Houston processed circa 30 terabytes of data, making still more sense of the paper trail and flagging important leads for investigators.

Financial analysts combed through hundreds of bank and brokerage accounts to track fraudulent purchases, which proved critical in securing restraining orders, seizing more than $168 million in assets and supporting insider trading charges. More than $105 million was forfeited to help compensate victims.

What emerged from the investigation was a mosaic of inter-related schemes—some hardly more than smoke and mirrors—that toppled a company that once boasted annual revenues over $150 billion. Enron ripped off California, selling energy to the state’s strapped utilities at over-inflated rates. Officials overstated the company’s fledgling Broadband venture, hitching the company’s stock price to the star of the still-nascent internet bubble. The company also overvalued its international assets by billions to generate cash flow and manipulated its quarterly earnings statements to keep Wall Street happy and its stock price afloat.

All in all, agents conducted more than 1,800 interviews, collected more than 3,000 boxes of evidence, and analyzed more than four terabytes of digitized data.


The five-year investigation led to jury convictions of top Enron officials who enriched themselves by cheating investors with sham accounting and guilty pleas from many others who were in on it. 

Former Enron CEO Ken Lay being led away by FBI agents in July 2004. Reuters Photo.
Handcuffed Ex-Enron CEO is led away by FBI agents (Reuters Photo)

Photo of the Enron Code of Ethics from 2000, signed by Enron’s Chairman and CEO Kenneth Lay.

Enron Code of Ethics from 2000, signed by Enron’s Chairman and CEO Kenneth Lay. The foreword of the Code of Ethics states that Enron “enjoys a reputation for fairness and honesty... but no matter [what]... Enron’s reputation... depends on its people, on you and me.” The executives of Enron defrauded thousands of people out of their life savings, leading to financial ruin for many of the employees that they purported to hold to high ethical standards. It reminds us that no company is above the law and that white-collar crime will be relentlessly pursued by the FBI until the perpetrators are brought to justice.

Twenty-two people have been convicted for their actions related to the fraud, including Enron’s chief executive officer, president/chief operating officer, chief financial officer, treasurer, chief accounting officer, and heads of business units.

“The Enron Task Force’s efforts resulted in the convictions of nearly all of Enron’s executive management team,” said Mr. Anderson. “The task force represented a model task force—the participating agencies selflessly and effectively worked together in accomplishing significant results. The case demonstrated to Wall Street and the business community that they will be held accountable.”

“Enron was a company where it was OK to lie; it was OK to cheat as long as you were making money for the company. And that attitude was permissible up to the top levels of the company. Both Skilling and Lay [the former CEOs of Enron], they agreed with that, and they allowed employees, they tolerated transgressions as long as employees were making money for the company,” Mr. Anderson continued.

Mr. Anderson said it was the thousands of victims, hard-working employees who lost their pensions, and the desire to hold accountable those responsible for the failure of Enron, that motivated agents, analysts, and others on the Enron Task Force to press ahead on the massive case.

“They lost their retirements, their health insurance, their livelihoods. That kept everyone interested in pressing forward in spite of the huge personal sacrifices inherent in working a major case for over five years,” Special Agent Anderson said. “If it’s some consolation to them, the people that were responsible for this fraud were punished for it.”