Lay of the Land

Houston headed toward hard times: sports flops, floods and transit duds. If only city fathers could find a proven leader, an energy executive with a KEN-do attitude.

Houston, or at least that part of Houston occupied by the city's elite, was flying high in the early part of 2001.

They had their man in the White House. In fact, if you drove through the Rice University area some very quiet nights, you could still hear James Baker laughing his head off as he told yet another party of energy execs about his exploits in Florida.

The city also had the man they wanted in the mayor's office, in the governor's mansion, in the congressional leadership. They had Phil Gramm in the Senate forever, and while few things in life were more annoying than having to kiss Phil Gramm's ass, they had to admit the man's political philosophy was pure gold, as long as you were a rich bidnessman who thought the gummint should just stay the hell out of the way of those folks who were pulling the wagon, as opposed to riding in it.

Still, there was room for improvement. Especially locally, where Mayor Lee Brown was tolerated more than respected. Why, oh why, the powers that be wailed -- especially through their house organ, the Houston Chronicle -- why can't we have the aggressive, charismatic, visionary leadership of, say, Ken Lay of Enron?

There was much well-placed talk of Lay running for the mayor's seat. But the city fathers decided they just couldn't wait.

It was time, they decided, to hand over the city to Ken Lay. The first few months of 2001 were okay, but with Lay operating behind the scenes, boy, the last half of 2001 was going to be great.

A delegation was tasked to visit The Man. Getting in wasn't as easy as they thought, for Lay was a very, very busy guy.

Not content with creating the impregnable financial fortress that was Enron, he had begun dabbling in other areas. An initial meeting between city representatives and Lay had to be canceled when the executive was simply too immersed in his side project of early 2001, which was managing the media strategy for Representative Gary Condit (D-Creepyville).

Once Lay had lined up Condit's appearance with Connie Chung -- "You've got to be shiftier if you want to look innocent, Gary," Lay had advised -- he deigned to meet with the city's delegation.

As the awed group entered Lay's lair, they found him on the phone, working the Lay magic.

"Listen, my friend," Lay was saying to whoever was on the other end of the line, "this tip is as solid as Enron stock. I'm telling you, the sequel to Battlefield Earth is going to be even bigger than the original, and we still have all the John Travolta action figures from the first one ready to go in the warehouse."

The delegation was impressed. They hadn't realized Lay also was involved in the entertainment industry.

"Come on," Lay continued. "A movie about some kid who finds out he's a wizard? If you want to piss your money away on some harebrained scheme, I can't stop you, but I swear on my stockholders' pensions that you're making a big mistake…Okay, think about it, but get back to me fast -- this bus is leaving the station."

He put down the phone and looked up at his visitors.

"And now, gentlemen, what can I do for you?" he asked.

Humbly, they laid out their case. Houston needed his leadership. There was no time to wait for elections. Behind the scenes, he would run every aspect of city life with all the magic he brought to running Enron.

"Intriguing," Lay said. "What can I say, gentlemen -- you need me. And my team. I'll do it. And by the time I get done, gentlemen, you can be assured that Houston will be as thoroughly Lay'd as my Enron employees."

And so, on June 1, 2001, the Ken Lay era began.


Grabbing the reins as only he could, Lay decided to first tackle the possibility that Houston might be hit by a devastating flood.

He wasn't pleased with what he found out. Mindless city bureaucrats were forcing developers to spend at least an extra 45 seconds thinking about how their new construction might affect flood runoff. True, the city accepted without a second thought whatever "plan" the developer came up with after that 45 seconds, but that was still 45 seconds that could have been better spent pouring concrete over natural detention ponds.

Getting rid of all that onerous red tape would take some time, but there were more immediate concerns to be addressed by Lay.

Memos flew out of his office like letters from a certain wizardry school in a movie doomed to fail.

"To: All Medical Center Employees

"From: Kenneth Lay, (Behind-the-Scenes) Flood Czar

"Re: Appalling misuse of space

"It has come to my attention that a noisy minority of employees is pressing to have flood pumps, of all things, installed in the basements of Medical Center facilities. These basements occupy some of the prime real estate of the city, and every inch is to be put to its highest and best use.

"Underground facilities such as this are perfect for experiments involving lab animals, not to mention anything involving radiation. I would also suggest that you store all critical research papers there, with the papers involving the most years of research placed nearest the floor, and less critical papers placed highest on the stack. In this manner the less critical papers will protect the important research from dust.

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