Enron botches payments to ex-employees

/ Source: The Associated Press

More than 20,000 former Enron Corp. employees who finally received the first payment from a portion of millions in retirement funds lost during the company's collapse have been told they were either overpaid or underpaid because of a computer glitch.

Now some ex-workers might have to pay back money if they got too much.

Last year, former Enron workers received about $89 million, the first payment that is part of a lawsuit settlement over money they lost through Enron's employee stock ownership and 401(k) plans.

But nearly $22 million of the initial payment was miscalculated, said Harlan Loeb, spokesman for Enron, now known as Enron Creditors Recovery Corp.

About 7,700 ex-workers were overpaid, and about 12,800 were underpaid. But they won't know their fate until the recalculation is finished.

Enron is blaming the problem on Hewitt Associates, an Illinois-based company it hired to allocate the settlement proceeds.

A software program that Hewitt used to calculate payments used the wrong stock price, Loeb said.

"It certainly was a profound mistake," he said.

Maurissa Kanter, a spokeswoman for Hewitt, said the company is focused on "working diligently with Enron to ensure that this matter is resolved as soon as possible for the plan's participants and beneficiaries."

In court filings, Hewitt acknowledged the problem was "due to an undetected data error," but disputed Loeb's assertion that Hewitt was the fund administrator and thus was responsible for making sure funds were correctly distributed.

"At all times, Hewitt has conducted itself as a service provider to Enron, with Enron having ultimate responsibility to direct all aspects of the allocation process and to direct Hewitt's work in that regard," Gregory Casas, Hewitt's attorney, wrote in a court filing last month.

Loeb called Hewitt's claim it is not the fund administrator "ridiculous."

Rod Jordan, chairman of the Severed Enron Employee Coalition and one of the workers told the payment he received was wrong, said many ex-workers are waiting to see what happens with the recalculations before reacting.

"It doesn't surprise me that they messed up. It's a complex calculation, but still their computer should have been double-checked before they issued any checks," said Jordan, who estimates he is getting back only about 5 percent of the $600,000 he lost.

Enron and Hewitt are waiting for U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon, who is overseeing the case, to rule on a motion by Enron asking that Hewitt redo its calculations and certify them and offer former workers a way to protest if they disagree with the new numbers.

The problems with the first settlement distribution could delay the next one, about $85 million.

Enron, once the nation's seventh-largest company, entered bankruptcy proceedings in December 2001 after years of accounting tricks could no longer hide billions in debt or make failing ventures appear profitable.

The collapse wiped out thousands of jobs, more than $60 billion in market value and more than $2 billion in pension plans.

Enron founder Kenneth Lay and former chief executive Jeffrey Skilling were convicted last year for their roles in the company's collapse. Skilling is serving a sentence of more than 24 years. Lay's convictions for conspiracy, fraud and other charges were wiped out after he died of heart disease last year.