AUSTIN, Texas -- Vinson & Elkins, the attorneys for Enron, are now touting their expertise on "offshore special purpose entities" on firm's website. They are "well versed," says their advertisement, in "off-balance sheet treatment."

In New York, they call that chutzpah; in Texas we call it brass body parts.

"We have nothing to lie low about," Harry Reasoner, a V-E partner, told the Austin American Statesman. Enron was once V-E's largest client. In 2001, V-E billed Enron $36 million, more than 7 percent of the firm's revenue, according to the Houston Chronicle.

A lot of ex-Enroners down in Houston were tossed out on their ears without a nickel -- savings gone, trust gone, faith gone, dreams gone. I've been watching money and Texas long enough to know there's no point in raising questions about sensitivity or taste. But how about a lick of common sense here, people?

Perhaps the single saddest fact about Enron is that it's still unclear whether the company's executives broke any laws. Because it is so difficult to prove fraud, the Justice Department is moving painfully slowly to see what, if anything, these guys can be nailed with. But when you read Robert Bryce's forthcoming Enron book, "Pipedreams," you will have no doubt at all that this was chicanery and greed on a stupefying level.

Any fool -- like, oh, say, the president -- who tells you all these problems have been taken care of with by the Sarbanes bill should check out the Vinson & Elkins ad. Attorney General John Ashcroft makes five guys do a perp walk and thinks we're dumb enough to assume that's the end of corporate fraud. It is notoriously difficult to prove fraud and I, for one, am cynical enough to believe that there is a class of people in the country called Too Rich to Go to Prison.

The more sensible and satisfying punishment would be to Make them Give the Money Back. The Sarbanes bill does provide for the forfeiture of certain bonuses and profits, but as Roger Lowenstein pointed out in The Wall Street Journal last week, there's a nasty loophole in the law. And if there's one thing sure as Bush's fatuity, it's that our creative corporate execs will find every loophole.

It's legally difficult to prove "misconduct," as opposed to your simple "accounting error." Lowenstein suggests the most effective deterrent would be for execs to forfeit profits derived from (SET ITAL) any (END ITAL) material misstatements. That's another item for the long, long list of reforms still desperately needed to "restore confidence," as they say on Wall Street. Wall Street euphemisms are a study in themselves. Who else would translate, "We cheated, we lied, we're complete skunks," into, "a restatement of earnings."

Speaking of Ashcroft, after spending a year on the investigation that netted 12 hookers in New Orleans, he has now announced that he is going after deadbeat dads, surely a more socially useful thing to do. But given his record on tracking down whatever terrorists may be lurking among us, the single mothers of the nation shouldn't get their hopes up.

Ashcroft could screw up a two-car funeral. He is now holding two U.S. citizens as "enemy combatants" on alarmingly slim evidence. These citizens are being held in a military brig without bail, charges, access to attorneys or the right to remain silent. John Walker Lindh, a nice-looking, well-to-do white boy, went into the regular justice system and plea-bargained down to 20 years. Yaser Esam Hamdi, whose story is exactly like Lindh's, has the wrong kind of name, was declared an "enemy combatant" and is now sitting in a military oubliette. Ditto Jose Padilla, who was arrested for allegedly planning to detonate a radioactive bomb except, oops, there turns out to be no evidence.

As the head of an Egyptian human rights organization said just a few weeks ago, "We were told initially the military law would be used only against drug dealers and terrorists." According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, Ashcroft is planning to expand the detentions.

Well, as Bush said about global warming, "We'll get used to it." Or maybe we should do something before it's too late. Been enjoying the weather lately?

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