The US Justice Department has started a full criminal investigation into the collapse of bankrupt energy giant Enron. Enron has welcomed the move, saying it will help consolidate the various investigations currently under way. A special task force has been set up, with prosecutors in New York, San Francisco and Houston.

Nonetheless a least two enquiries will be taking place, other than Enron’s own internal one, in the form of separate civil enquiries launched by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Labor Dept.

A number of congressional committees have indicated they will also examine the company’s ties to the Bush administration, which received $114 000 for Bush’s presidential campaign. VP Dick Cheney’s energy task force met with Enron representatives six times in seven months during last year, although the White House is claiming that the company’s finances were never discussed. Now Cheney is under pressure to reveal the details of these discussions, especially those with Kenneth Lay, then Enron chairman, while the White House scrambles to isolate president Bush from the affair. Crucially, cabinet officials have gone on national TV to testify that they did not tell Bush about calls for help they received from Enron last autumn.

Highly damaging admissions have come from accounting firm Andersen, Enron’s auditor, that its employees had disposed of a number of electronic and hard copy documents related to its audit of Enron after receiving a subpoena from the regulators. Previously, Andersen chief executive Joseph Berardino had testified to Congress that he had warned Enron of “possible illegal acts”, and blamed the company for failing to provide key information. Later it emerged that regular discussions about destroying Enron papers had been taking place between Andersen’s Chicago head office and the local Houston office.

Several bids have been received for Enron’s trading business, including, apparently, majority stake bids from banks Citigroup and UBS. BP has made an offer of $25 million for a small part of the business, mainly IT systems. However the sale process was delayed beyond its due date of January 10th after 15 or more Enron creditors, including Aquila and Royal Bank of Scotland, sought a court order preventing the sale of Enron’s energy trading business, citing concerns about how the money would be spent.