The Kopper Caper

Enron's secret domestic-partner benefits program

One of the finer ironies of the unfolding Enron scandal is that one of its executives found a way to turn the inherent financial disadvantages of a same-sex relationship into a business plus -- albeit a possibly illegal one.

Just last fall, Michael J. Kopper, the 37-year-old managing director of Enron Global Equities Market Group, and domestic partner William David Dodson enthusiastically supported the city's efforts to provide insurance benefits for same-sex partners of municipal employees. Conservative forces petitioned for Proposition 2 to ban those benefits. So Kopper and Dodson contributed $2,250 to Citizens for a Fair Houston and Progressive Voters in Action, two groups that campaigned against the referendum.

The couple's employer, Enron, also forked over $10,000 at the urging of Mayor Lee P. Brown. Dodson upped the ante by contributing another $10,000 for an October 22 campaign cocktail and dinner hosted by plaintiff's attorney Richard Mithoff. Dodson attended the dinner while Kopper was away on Enron business.

Kopper copped the Fifth in a recent hearing.
CNBC
Kopper copped the Fifth in a recent hearing.

The two were part of a Museum District circle of thirty- and fortysomething gay professionals who regularly dined and took in movies and art openings. But few in their crowd ever imagined that Kopper and Dodson had come into a lot of extra income over the past few years. So much so that they could have funded the entire opposition campaign to Prop 2 with no sweat.

One source didn't even realize she had partied with Kopper until seeing him on C-SPAN last week sitting before a congressional committee and taking the Fifth Amendment. Kopper and Dodson led low-key, cultured lifestyles. They eschewed the gay bar scene, drove spiffy BMWs and actively participated in the Southampton Place civic association.

The household's breadwinner was Kopper, a trim, bespectacled native of Woodmere, New York. He was a financial whiz who had gone to Duke University and the London School of Economics. Under the aegis of a neighbor, Enron chief financial officer Andrew Fastow, Kopper and a few other Enron employees tapped into an instant gold mine, a partnership Fastow titled Chewco. While Fastow was raking in more than $30 million for managing a string of partnerships whimsically tagged with Star Wars names, deputy Kopper got a smaller chunk of change estimated at $10 million.

Dodson, 45, described by a friend as an attractive, blue-eyed blond, had broken up with a previous partner. He sold his previous residence and in 1997 moved in with Kopper to a Bolsover home, now valued at $740,000 and owned by Dodson. He has not worked for several years since leaving Continental Airlines and seemed to relish the home life, supervising stylish interior decoration and landscaping projects on the property.

Like Fastow, the windfall from Chewco drove Kopper and Dodson at warp speed into Houston's upper financial atmosphere. They've got a new Avalon Place mansion -- also in Dodson's name -- in the finishing stages. It occupies a $500,000 plot of land not far from the R.O. domiciles of Fastow, ex-CEO Jeff Skilling and ex-chairman Ken Lay.

Laughs an acquaintance, "Hey, if this blows over, maybe they can start a new partnership called River Oaks Place." That's a big if.

The spousal relationship of Kopper and Dodson is not recognized by law. So Kopper had no problems allowing his partner to take over ownership interests in several limited partnerships, including two called Sonr #1 and Sonr #2, even as Kopper was managing the transactions for Enron. By contrast, when Fastow proposed to Skilling that he be allowed to bring his wife's relatives in on the deals, Skilling claims he told the financial officer "that would be a bad idea."

For ambitious, monogamous gay professionals, there's little financial advantage to be derived from same-sex relationships. Sue Lovell, a Democratic national committeewoman and former Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus president, points out the drawbacks of a relationship that society refuses to recognize.

"It means that you don't have the benefits of a heterosexual marriage. You do not receive tax benefits, you have no rights in any medical decisions for your partner, and you cannot share in social security benefits."

Maybe so, but in the superheated anything-goes scene at Enron, Michael Kopper found the rare silver lining in such unsanctioned private relationships.

"It's certainly an unintended consequence of government trying to control who can be in a legally recognized relationship with whom," one gay activist says, savoring the dark humor of the situation.

"Maybe this will convince some people legalized gay marriage isn't such a bad idea after all."

If nothing else, the Kopper Caper may persuade corporations that don't provide domestic partner benefits that it might be in their own interests to get a handle on the identities of their executives' significant others of the same sex.

Take This Endorsement and Shove It!

It's not every day a state rep rejects an endorsement, particularly when the official is Jessica Farrar and the group is Latina PAC, dedicated to the advancement of Hispanic women in politics. But that's exactly what Farrar did after the group last week issued a joint endorsement of Farrar and her District 148 primary opponent, Alma Zepeda.

"If Latina PAC thinks that my years of service in the legislature and that my years of support of Latina PAC is on a par with the level of service of my opponent who barely joined last month, then my values and mission conflict with those of Latina PAC," Farrar stated in a letter to the group.

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