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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Two former Enron executives at the heart of a web of partnerships that kept company debt off the books invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify to Congress on Thursday.

``On the advice of my counsel I respectfully decline to answer the questions,'' said Andrew Fastow, Enron's former chief financial officer.

Fastow was dismissed after telling the committee that would be his answer to all questions posed by the panel.

Michael Kopper, a former Enron officer, also invoked the constitutional protection against self-incrimination. Kopper saw an investment of $125,000 become $10.5 million in less than three years.

After Kopper departed, two current Enron executives, Richard Buy and Richard Causey, also declined to answer questions. Both had knowledge of the partnerships that Fastow and Kopper ran.

Fastow and Kopper collected $40 million for their role in the partnerships _ which investigators say involved self-dealing and conflicts of interest that eventually lead to the energy trading company's collapse.

Fastow was sworn in by Rep. Jim Greenwood, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee. Greenwood was rebuffed when he asked the witness two questions about his handling of company partnerships that hid hundreds of millions of dollars in Enron debt.

``You enriched yourself by tens of millions of dollars'' through deals ``with your own company,'' Greenwood said to him.

As the four current and former Enron executives sat silently in the crowded hearing room, lawmakers called those who drove the company into bankruptcy, ``economic terrorists,'' ``business cowboys'' and ``corporate thieves.''

``This collapse was not brought about by isolated acts of rogue employees. It required the complicity of far more than a few bad apples,'' Greenwood said as he opened Thursday's hearing.

``Was the selling of your morals ... of your souls, worth it?'' asked Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who said ``millions of dreams'' of people who lost retirement money were ruined by the Enron crash.

Arthur Andersen auditor David Duncan also has invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify before Congress. Duncan was fired last month for his role in the shredding of Enron-related documents.

Among those expected to testify at Thursday's hearing were Jeffrey Skilling, Enron's former CEO, and former Enron attorney Jordan Mintz, who became so concerned about whether the off-the-books partnerships were proper that he tried to rein them in.

Mintz raised questions with Buy, the chief risk officer, and Causey, the chief accounting officer, about how the partnerships were being handled late in 2000, shortly after becoming general counsel for Enron Global Finance.

In memos, Mintz insisted Skilling sign off on one partnership arrangement before it could proceed. Six people signed an approval sheet, but the line next to Skilling's typed name is blank. Causey and Buy were among those who signed.

In a May 22 memo to Skilling, Mintz wrote: ``I can send such approval sheets to you as a package and you can then sign at your convenience.'' Twelve days earlier, Mintz had gone to an outside law firm because of his concerns about whether the partnerships were proper.

Skilling's lawyers said his approval wasn't required. But ``based on the documents it looks to us like Skilling wanted to keep his fingerprints off the partnerships,'' said Ken Johnson, the Commerce Committee's spokesman.

Skilling, who resigned as chief executive last summer, before Enron's troubles became public, was expected to claim he didn't know the details of the complex web of partnerships that concealed hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and overstated the company's profits by more than $1 billion over several years.

While Enron's financial practices were complex, Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., said the ``simple story is old-fashioned theft,'' where a handful of executives enriched themselves by more than $40 million.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said that ``for years, Enron executives played it fast and loose ... and as long as the stock went up they were happy.''

Across the Capitol, former Enron employees told senators about their feelings of anger, shock and sadness as they watched their company fall into bankruptcy.

``I now understand why people jumped out of windows during the Great Depression,'' Steven E. Lacey said in prepared testimony to a Senate committee.

Lacey asked Congress to hold former Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay and other top company officials personally liable for the workers' losses.

Millions of investors lost money, and thousands of current and former Enron employees lost the great bulk of their retirement savings when the company collapsed.

An Enron executive testifying at a House hearing denied allegations made by a former employee that money in an employee benefits account was paid to outside consultants and used for unrelated expenses.

``There was no money diverted,'' said Mikie Rath, Enron's benefits manager, when lawmakers asked about the allegations Thursday.

Earlier this week, Robin Hosea, a former accountant in the benefits department, described such accounting discrepancies.