Former Enron founder and CEO Kenneth Lay died of a heart attack yesterday in Aspen, Colorado while awaiting sentencing in the aftermath of his conviction on multiple counts of corporate fraud. Lay was expected to serve up to 20 years in prison for his crimes. When I read about his death last night, I initially thought, What did you do, Ken? Commit suicide? It would not have been surprised if he had committed suicide prior to sentencing. No, I later read, he died of a heart attack. Did Lay die of a broken heart? I wondered. Not a broken heart in the sense of a jilted lover, but rather from the physical torment caused by stress and anxiety brought on by knowing that your world has fallen apart and you have nothing to look forward to in the next two decades except facing worldwide condemnation and perpetual incarceration.
The courts ruled that Kenneth Lay, with the help of his trusted underlings, killed Enron. Could it also be that Enron killed Kenneth Lay? Did Lay orchestrate his own ending by succumbing to the pain and anguish brought on by Enron’s collapse? Ken Lay will now go down in history as a tragic figure who elicits public sympathy for his sudden, traumatic death. The world will now look upon him more favorably because of his untimely passing. Former CEO Jeffery Skilling and former CFO Andrew Fastow will not be treated so kindly in the court of public opinion. Both will face ongoing tarring and feathering by society, long prison sentences, marginalization, and eventually, death. Lay’s life is over, but he unwittingly mitigated two realities that would have plagued him for the rest of his life–punishment for Enron’s demise and public hostility. Enron’s role in Lay’s death will mute some of Lay’s guilt. Perhaps Lay planned it that way. Rest in peace, Kenneth Lay.