Lay and Skilling's day of reckoning
Enron ex-CEO and founder convicted on fraud and conspiracy charges; sentencing slated for September.
HOUSTON (CNNMoney.com) - Enron former chief executive Jeffrey Skilling and founder Kenneth Lay were both found guilty Thursday of conspiracy and fraud in the granddaddy of all corporate fraud cases.
On the sixth day of deliberations, a jury of eight women and four men convicted the former executives of misleading the public about the true financial health of Enron, whose collapse in late 2001 symbolized the wave of corporate fraud that swept the United States early this decade.
Skilling was found guilty on 19 counts of conspiracy, fraud, false statements and insider trading. He was found not guilty on nine counts of insider trading.
Lay was found guilty on all six counts of conspiracy and fraud. In a separate bench trial, Judge Sim Lake ruled Lay was guilty of four counts of fraud and false statements. (Click here for the defendants' reactions)
Both Lay and Skilling could face 20 to 30 years in prison, legal experts say. And Lay will also face an additional hefty term in prison for his conviction in the bank fraud case.
"I think absent a successful appeal, they will both die in prison," said Jamie Wareham, global chairman of litigation at the international law firm Paul Hastings. "When you're a judge that's concluded that two men have lied to you for hours and hours and hours, light sentences aren't going to flow."
Judge Lake set sentencing for Sept. 11 and ordered Lay to surrender his passport and post a $5 million bond. No home confinement was ordered but homes owned by Lay and his children were used as an assurety for the $5 million bond.
Skilling's attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, told reporters outside the courthouse, "We will have a full and vigorous appeal."
"The jury saw it differently," Petrocelli said, referring to his client's maintaining his innocence. "We'll take it from here."
Wareham said the defendants don't have a large amount of appeal platforms, but he expects lawyers will try to raise the issue that both men were tried in Houston, the epicenter of Enron's implosion. Defense attorneys had attempted unsuccessfully to have the venue changed prior to the trial saying it was impossible to get a fair trial in Houston.
(Click here to see Skilling and Petrocelli outside the courthouse.)
All 12 jurors and three alternates speaking to reporters after the verdict insisted that the decision was one of the hardest they had to make, given compelling arguments from both sides. But ultimately, they agreed that the evidence, corroborated by the line of witnesses presented by the prosecution, proved too strong to ignore.
"This is undoubtedly the most difficult, heart-wrenching experience I've ever had in my life," said Kathy Harrison, an elementary school teacher who served on the jury. "I performed my duty as an American citizen. I've never fought on a foreign battleground (but) I fought on this battleground for American justice."
Jurors said of the 22 witnesses for the prosecution, the first witness, Mark Koenig - who served as Enron's head of investor relations - and Ben Glisan, the former treasurer of Enron who is the only executive currently serving time in jail, were the most persuasive given their knowledge of details at the company.
But Andrew Fastow, Enron's former financial chief who was long considered to be a star witness for the prosecution, was less effective, jurors said.
"Fastow was Fastow," said Donald Martin, an electrical designer who served on the jury. "We knew where he was coming from."
The defense has long contended that Fastow's treachery brought down the company and he cut a deal with the prosecution, requiring him to testify against his former bosses, to receive a lighter sentence.
Wendy Vaughn, a juror who owns two businesses, said that from the beginning she admired both Lay and Skilling's brilliance and talent as businessmen building up Enron. But she said "it was sad to see in the end, it wasn't accomplished in a respectful manner."
She added that Lay's demeanor on the stand ultimately worked against him.
"He seemed very much wanting to be in control," she said. "He seemed to have very much of a chip on his shoulder... it made me question his character."
And the jurors said both men seemed to be hands-on executives, making their testimony that they relied on the advice of others questionable.
"Both said they had their hands on the wheel," said Freddy Delgado, an elementary school principal. "I can't say I don't know what my teachers are doing. To say that they didn't know what was going (on, it) wasn't right they said that."
Delgado added that the jury pored through the facts and he didn't believe anyone could question the fairness of the Houston jury.
"Houston should be proud," he said.
Tears in the courthouse
Skilling stood stone-faced as he was convicted on most of the counts he faced. Skilling's wife and children were notably absent.
Petrocelli had his hand on his client's shoulder, bracing him.
As Lay's verdict was read, his daughter Elizabeth Vittore, who has been one of his attorneys during the case, began to sob uncontrollably. His wife, Linda, clutching his hand, wiped tears away silently. All of his children sat in the front row with other members of the family. One of his sons put his face in his hands and wept.
Lay clutched his wife's hand and looked straight ahead.
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Lay expressed shock at the verdict and continued to maintain his innocence as his wife Linda stood by his side.
"I firmly believe I am innocent of the charges," he said. "Despite what has happened I'm still a very blessed man."
(Click here to see Lay's reaction.)
Outside the courtroom after court was adjourned, Skilling said, "We fought a good fight. Some things work. Some things don't."
"Obviously I'm disappointed, but that's the way the system works," he added.
Enron employees rejoiced at the verdict. (Click here for full story.)
A huge scandal
The verdict is a major victory for the government, and marks the end of one of the most scandalous chapters in the history of corporate America.
The Enron government task force exited the courthouse at 2 p.m. ET and was greeted with applause. In a statement to the press, lead government prosecutor Sean Berkowitz said, "The eyes of the world have been on this courthouse and they have seen the justice system at work."
"No matter how rich you are, you have to play by the rules," he added.
Berkowitz said that he was proud of everybody on his team and the personal sacrifice they had made, adding they would all "go out and get a drink."
In Washington, Department of Justice officials praised the Enron prosecutors and said the conviction will encourage the government to go after more such cases.
"Our laws will be enforced just as vigorously against corporate executives as against street criminals," said Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. "No one is above the law."
The White House had no comment on the verdicts except to congratulate the Justice Department for winning convictions in a "highly complex" case. Lay was a major fund-raiser for President Bush, who gave him the nickname "Kenny Boy."
"The administration has been pretty clear - there is no tolerance for corporate corruption," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
Houston-based Enron, once one of the hottest companies on Wall Street, imploded in a matter of months after Skilling abruptly resigned as CEO in August 2001. Lay, who was chairman at the time, postponed his retirement plans to return to the helm.
Enron's collapse marked the first of the high-profile corporate scandals that rocked the nation, followed by WorldCom, Global Crossing, Adelphia and Tyco. The wave of fraud led to passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley law that tightened oversight of how American companies are audited.
After a government investigation that took 4-1/2 years, prosecutors presented evidence that Lay and Skilling orchestrated a conspiracy to artificially inflate profits, hide millions in losses and misrepresent the true nature of the company's finances.
The long-awaited trial began Jan. 31 in Houston.
Enron's bankruptcy, the biggest in U.S. history when it was filed in December 2001, cost 4,000 employees their jobs and many of them their life savings. Investors lost billions of dollars.
Over 16 weeks, the government presented 22 witnesses, including former top executives, who testified that Skilling and Lay fostered a culture that put the company's image and stock price above everything else, at any cost.
Sixteen people pleaded guilty for crimes committed at the company, and five others, including four former Merrill Lynch employees, were found guilty at trial. Eight former Enron executives testified against Lay and Skilling, their former bosses.
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