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What Can We Learn From Enron’s Internal Emails?

- September 3, 2010

The U.S. has “a campaign finance system that is nothing less than an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.” That’s Senator John McCain in 1999. But it could have been many people from either side of the aisle. The view that interest groups trade campaign contributions for political favors is the prevailing wisdom.

But in an APSA panel later today, Lee Drutman and I will be challenging one part of that view using an analysis of the internal emails of the Enron Corporation. After Enron went bankrupt in late 2001, more than 200,000 internal emails from its upper-level management became public. These emails serve as a “currency of attention,” letting us see what the firm’s employees were doing on a day-to-day basis. Enron was a very politically connected firm, and its energy businesses put it into constant contact with public officials at all levels. Enron is also a good test case, because it wasn’t, um, especially worried about violating ethical norms or laws. If businesses are routinely trading campaign contributions for favorable policies, Enron should have been among the more active traders.

Using tools from computer science, we identified more than 1,000 emails that had political content, and then coded them as reflecting one of five types of activities a firm might engage in. The activities range from monitoring politics to contacting legislators, formally participating through hearings or other venues, shaping opinion, and intervening in campaigns and elections. The results?


Each of the graphs above plots the share of emails in a separate category of political activities over time. As it turns out, Enron’s staffers were not very interested in campaigns, elections, or political fundraising. An underwhelming 1.4% of political emails were about those topics. By contrast, Enron employees spent the majority of their political emails–66%–simply following events, or what we call “monitoring.” Certainly, they were also devoting considerable attention to their meetings with public officials, an activity which covers 15% of political emails. And to perhaps a greater extent than expected (9%), Enron was also involved in formal governmental processes, like rule-making or hearings. To be sure, Enron was closely intertwined with political figures–but it was only occasionally concerned with the elections that determined who those political figures would be.