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Justice Department starts a criminal probe of Enron

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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has begun a criminal investigation of Enron Corp., the bankrupt energy company whose collapse caused many employees to lose their life's savings.

An attorney for Enron welcomed the inquiry, the latest in a series of governmental probes into the company's demise, saying the investigation would "bring light to the facts."

"We want to get to the bottom of this, too," said Robert Bennett, a Washington attorney representing the Houston-based company. "A lot of decent and honorable people work at Enron, and we should wait until the facts are out."

President Bush, whose campaigns have been supported financially by Enron executives, ordered a separate review Thursday of pension and corporate disclosure rules that could jeopardize workers' savings. "There has been a wave of bankruptcies that have caused many workers to lose their pensions and that is deeply troubling to me," Bush said.

The Justice Department is forming a national task force to look into the company's dealings. The group will be headed by lawyers at the department's criminal division and include prosecutors in Houston, San Francisco, New York and several other cities, said a Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official declined to say when the investigation began. Enron faces civil investigations by the Labor Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission and subpoenas from congressional committees.

All are looking into the energy trading company's collapse, the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.

The failure hit employees and investors hard. Workers were prohibited from selling company stock from their Enron-heavy 401(k) retirement accounts as the company's stock plummeted. Many lost their life's savings.

Enron executives cashed out more than $1 billion in stock when it was near its peak.

Former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, who left the helm nearly two months before the company's swift descent, welcomes the investigation, said spokeswoman Judy Leon. Skilling has said he had no idea, despite Enron's falling stock values, that the company was on the brink of failure.

Formed in 1985, Enron had 20,000 employees and was once the world's top buyer and seller of natural gas and the largest electricity marketer in the United States. It also marketed coal, pulp, paper, plastics, metals and fiber-optic bandwidth.