Bringing Ethics to Enron
Trinity alumnus revealed as whistleblower who exposed corruption within energy company; returns to speak to business students
Wednesday, July 13, 2022
Enron Whistleblower Jim Timmins shakes hand with a student in the Chapman Great Hall

On December 2, 2001, the Enron Corporation filed for what was at the time the largest corporate bankruptcy petition in United States history. Thousands of workers lost their jobs, and billions of dollars in retirement funds and pension plans went down the drain.

This is not a story, however, explaining mark-to-market accounting. This is not a story about why private equity funds should have the public’s interest in mind. This is a story about Jim Timmins ’76, M’78, the Trinity University graduate who blew the whistle that exposed the rampant corruption within Enron, a decision which to this day affects business practices across the nation. 

 

Attending “Tennis Tech”

Well before he changed the corporate world forever, Timmins committed to play tennis at Trinity—or “Tennis Tech,” as it was known in the sport community. As a San Antonio native and Alamo Heights High School graduate, Timmins spent a large part of his childhood watching matches at the Al G. Hill Jr. courts on Trinity’s campus. He also had Clarence Mabry, known as the “Father of Trinity tennis,” as his first coach growing up.

“There was really no question about where I was going to go to college if I was good enough,” Timmins says. “Clarence was like a second father to me. He offered me a scholarship and I decided to come to Trinity because there was, frankly, no second choice for me. I always wanted to come here and play tennis.”

Timmins signed his letter of intent to play for the Tigers on May 1, 1972. The very next month, Trinity won the NCAA Division I tennis championship. It is safe to say Timmins felt good about his decision.

“Playing tennis at Trinity gave me a different perspective on many things,” Timmins said. “I felt like I grew as a person in many more ways than I would have without tennis in my life.”

Jim Timmins was a national contender on the men's tennis team in 1976. Photos courtesy of the Trinitonian and Mirage, respectively. 

Timmins also created many memories at Trinity as a member of the Bengal Lancers fraternity.

“The size of Trinity lends itself to being part of one of the clubs,” Timmins says. “I developed some friendships that I have to this day with other guys who were in the fraternity with me, so it was a lot of fun to have that interaction, camaraderie, and brotherhood.”

In the classroom, Timmins majored in finance and proceeded to get his Master of Business Administration (MBA) at Trinity as well. This background prepared him well to become the director of Private Equity for the Enron Corporation in 1997, just as Enron was thriving as one of the nation’s most innovative and successful companies.

A couple of years into his work at Enron, Timmins began having doubts about the actions of his boss, Chief Financial Officer Andy Fastow. Timmins quit his job in January 2000 as a result of his concerns with Fastow’s behavior, but it was not until 2001 that Enron began to struggle. Enron’s Chief Executive Officer Jeff Skilling resigned in August 2001, and Enron’s stocks tumbled.

As Timmins recalls, Enron received lots of bad press in fall 2001, but Timmins couldn’t believe no one was reporting on the actions of Fastow. Timmins found Fastow to be the person acting unethically and believed he was a major reason for Enron’s fall. 

When Timmins finally saw a small blurb about Fastow in the Wall Street Journal, he reached out to the two reporters to tell them he knew much more about Fastow. It was at this point that Timmins decided to turn everything he had over in exchange for a promise to remain anonymous.

“When I made the decision to talk to the Wall Street Journal, I didn't realize it would lead to Enron's bankruptcy, but I knew it was catastrophic,” Timmins says. “When it came out, I was even concerned for my own safety because I thought these guys were powerful at Enron, and if they know it's me, they can make bad things happen.”

Timmins turned over 400 pages of information to Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller of the Wall Street Journal. They in turn cranked out stories using Timmins’ information, and after they published four articles in October 2001, Enron fired Fastow. By December, Enron declared bankruptcy. 

“I just knew what I did had to be done,” Timmins says.

Jim Timmins '76, M'78 speaks on the importance of ethics to business students in the Chapman Great Hall in May 2022.

Unveiling the Whistleblower

For 20 years, Timmins’ tips to the Wall Street Journal remained anonymous. Timmins explains that he never wanted anyone to think he would profit in any way from burying Enron, which ultimately led many to suffer. 

Two decades later, Smith and Emshwiller reconnected with Timmins and asked if they could finally share his name as the whistleblower for a special podcast produced for the 20th anniversary of Enron’s collapse. After consulting his lawyer, Timmins agreed that enough time had passed, so he allowed his name to be made public through the Wall Street Journal podcast.

“I felt it was time to set the record straight. I felt it was time to get it off my chest. Twenty years is a long time,” Timmins says. 

Since coming forward as the whistleblower in October 2021, Timmins has taken to spreading his message of acting ethically to business schools across the country. When thinking about which schools to speak to first, his alma mater naturally made the top of the list. Timmins contacted professor and chair of the Department of Business Administration, Charlene Davis, Ph.D.; together they designed a two-day program around Timmins' return to campus.

As luck would have it, finance professor Dante Suarez, Ph.D. teaches a class in professionalism and ethics in Trinity’s Michael Neidorff School of Business. "When Jim reached out to let us know he'd be named as the original whistleblower for Enron, he also said he was interested in talking to students who could learn from his story," Suarez says. "I thought the ethics course would be a good place to have that talk.”

To get the conversation started, Suarez first had students in his Business Ethics class write research papers in which they stated their opinions on the Enron scandal. After those were turned in, students got to hear from Timmins directly in class and in person on May 4, 2022.

“It's important that the students hear the message directly from Mr. Timmins because it tells us that the actions of one person can really change the world,” Suarez says.

In addition to the private opportunity given to business ethics students, Timmins spoke at a public event in the Chapman Great Hall, cohosted by the business and finance departments. Timmins’ message especially resonated to the class filled with business majors who hope to soon work in the same corporate space that Timmins had to navigate all those years ago.

“We're going to be entering a world where we're going to be surrounded by plenty of corporate greed, and there are going to be opportunities for ethical violations,” senior Daniel Whittington ’23 says. “Hearing from someone who took the step in the other direction, and how well he's doing compared to his peers that are in prison, it's important that we can hopefully have a good example to follow that leadership.”

For Tara Lujan ’22, a recent graduate and past winner of the Louis H. Stumberg New Venture Competition as co-founder of HydroTek, Timmins’ message is something she will apply immediately as she seeks to expand her company.

“It's only three of us right now, but we're expecting to grow more by the end of this year,” Lujan says. “We'll have way more employees, so I think it's important to establish good ethics, good corporate governance. We essentially set the precedent for every other employee that joins us.”

After a lecture in the Chapman Great Hall, students got a chance to interact one-on-one with Trinity graduate Jim Timmins, the Enron whistleblower.

Liberal Arts in the 21st Century

Timmins is proof that what is learned in the classroom can last a lifetime. As part of Timmins’ return to San Antonio, he had lunch with one of his former professors, Professor Emeritus Richard Burr, Ph.D.

“He's one of those professors who really had an impact on how I viewed the business world because he was always so prepared, so articulate, and answered questions so well,” Timmins says. “To me, the professors create the culture around how these students think about things going forward.”

In the eyes of Suarez, Timmins exemplifies what can be created at Trinity when mixing business, which is traditionally seen as a pre-professional program, with a liberal arts education.

“I think we have the opportunity to redefine what the liberal arts means in the 21st century. You can have a liberal arts degree with a whole lot of business in it, or vice versa,” Suarez says. “The business administration degrees at Trinity’s Neidorff School of Business have the liberal arts spirit in the sense that even if you're studying finance, you still have to take a class in all of the functional areas of business.”

This mix of hard skills with crucial soft skills like communication prepare Trinity students to enter their careers with a major advantage.

“I feel like our students come out of Trinity being part of an interdisciplinary team,” Suarez says. “They have all of this information that ultimately gets them a job but also helps them shine within the organization where they will be able to rise to the top much more quickly.”

Whittington and Lujan are both excellent examples of what Suarez describes. Whittington has taken classes such as "Philosophy of Race" and "Theater for Social Change" that he feels have opened his eyes to new perspectives. Meanwhile, Lujan initially pursued psychology at Trinity, and despite her not officially adding that as a minor, all the psychology classes she took have helped her both in school and in her business.

“I've noticed that there's a lot of different things we talked about in business and also in my management concentration where the foundational part of that comes from the field of psychology,” Lujan says. “I'm taking the human resources capstone, and the perfect couple between psychology and business would be HR.”

Ultimately, Suarez and Timmins both hope that the students who heard the message understand that acting ethically is always the right action, no matter the field or circumstance.

“Listen to my story. I did what I thought was right. Twenty-one years later, I would do it the same way,” Timmins says. “[These students] will have a fork in the road in their business career where they'll have to make a decision between short-term riches, which is the wrong road, or doing the right thing, which is sometimes more arduous or more complicated but  the right way to go. Do the right thing in life.”

Brian Yancelson '22 is a public relations intern for Trinity's Office of Strategic Communications and Marketing and a play-by-play broadcaster for Tiger Network.

You might be interested in