Former Enron executive who questioned company practices found dead of likely suicide

Saturday, January 26th 2002, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

HOUSTON (AP) _ A former Enron Corp. executive who resigned after reportedly challenging the firm's accounting practices was found shot to death in his car in an apparent suicide.

The body of J. Clifford Baxter, 43, was found around 2:30 a.m. Friday by a police officer checking on a car parked near Baxter's affluent neighborhood in Sugar Land, just southwest of Houston. He was in the driver's seat with a .38-caliber revolver at his side.

Police found a suicide note. Its contents were not disclosed by authorities.

Baxter had resigned from Enron last May, and reportedly had complained about questionable accounting practices that have been blamed for the company's implosion last year.

Baxter left Enron several months before the company collapsed in the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Enron's sudden downfall and financial practices are being investigated by federal prosecutors, the FBI, securities regulators and 11 congressional committees and subcommittees.

Former Enron chairman and chief executive Kenneth Lay, a focus of the investigations and one of President Bush's strongest supporters, resigned this week.

Baxter was not in the forefront of Enron's ever-growing controversy. But as an executive who saw the murky finances up close and sold millions of dollars in Enron stock, he faced questions in the investigations and was named in multiple lawsuits by shareholders.

Baxter was identified by name in an explosive warning that Enron executive Sherron Watkins wrote to Lay about questionable financial practices.

``Cliff Baxter complained mightily to (then-CEO Jeff) Skilling and all who would listen about the inappropriateness of our transactions with LJM,'' Watkins wrote last August. LJM is one of the partnerships that was apparently used to keep a half-billion dollars in losses off Enron's books.

Watkins' letter to Lay said that ``we will implode in a wave of accounting scandals'' unless the company changed its ways.

Watkins said in a statement that she was ``deeply saddened and stunned'' by Baxter's death.

With their home under guard by four police officers, Baxter's family released a statement pleading for privacy.

``We are suffering the loss of our beloved husband, father and friend and respectfully wish not to be disturbed at this time,'' the statement said.

Baxter had been named in a federal lawsuit accusing him and other Enron executives of reaping huge profits on Enron stock before the company collapsed.

The lawsuit, filed by Enron shareholders, alleges that 29 people made $1.1 billion by selling Enron stock between October 1998 and November 2001. The lawsuit said Baxter had sold 577,436 shares for $35.2 million.

Thousands of Enron workers eventually lost their jobs and watched their retirement savings all but evaporate after the company disclosed the losses and the value of Enron shares plummeted.

Jim Richard, a Fort Bend County justice of the peace, ruled Baxter's death a suicide but ordered an autopsy as a precaution.

``I have no inkling whether the unfortunate event had anything to do with the investigation,'' said Baxter's attorney, Michael Levy.

Enron released a statement saying, ``We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of our friend and colleague, Cliff Baxter. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.''

Enron spokesman Mark Palmer had no additional comment.

When Baxter resigned from Enron, the company said his primary motive was to spend more time with his family. Skilling said then that ``his creativity, intelligence, sense of humor and straightforward manner have been assets to the company throughout his career.''

Baxter was born in Amityville, N.Y., and graduated from New York University. He was a captain in the Air Force from 1980 to 1985 and received an MBA in 1987 from Columbia University, where he was valedictorian, according to the company.

Baxter joined Enron in 1991. He was chairman and CEO of Enron North America, which encompassed Enron's energy trading operation, before being named chief strategy officer and then vice chairman of Enron Corp., the company said.

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