Ex-Enron workers: 'Give 'em 50 years'
After losing much of their retirement savings, former employees work on and hope executives are put away.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Charlie Prestwood, a 33-year veteran of Enron, thought he had it made when he retired in 2000 at age 62.
Preston had amassed $1.3 million in company stock, having worked as a natural-gas operator for Enron and its predecessor just north of Houston. He was going to pay off his house, live a comfortable retirement and hopefully leave a nice bit of cash to his two grown children.
Now, Preston is selling off small parcels of family land to help cover the mortgage on his home and pay his health insurance.
"When I retired I thought I had all my ducks in a row," he said in an interview with CNNMoney.com Monday, as jury selection in the long-awaited Enron trial began. "But now I run out of money before I run out of bills."
Preston is one of more than 20,000 former Enron employees who lost big when the energy company went bankrupt in 2001. The stock had soared during the 1990s before sinking to just pennies after the company imploded in 2001.
No doubt these former employees will be following the trial of former chief executive Jeffrey Skilling and Enron founder Ken Lay, both of whom face more than three dozen fraud and conspiracy charges related to lying to investors about the company's finances while they sold millions of dollars in stock themselves.
Preston's take? He thinks Lay and Skilling should be found guilty and get 50 years each without parole. "That way they couldn't cheat someone else out of something."
What went wrong?
Enron's former and current employees have a number of complaints. They accuse the former management of promoting the company's stock when they knew about major problems. They say the company 401(k) plan, which matched employee contributions only in company stock, forced employees to stake too much of their retirement savings to Enron shares.
And they point to a one-month period in the fall of 2001 when they couldn't sell the sinking stock while the 401(k) plan underwent changes.
"It was just terrible," said Roy Rinard, 58, an Oregon-based lineman for Enron-acquired Pacific General Electric, which Enron bought in 1997. Rinard said his retirement account, held all in Enron shares, was once worth $470,000. He cashed out for $2,400.
"By the time I realized what was going on, I was just in shock -- I couldn't do anything." He concedes that putting all his shares in one company was a bad idea, but still blames Enron executives for the catastrophe.
Rinard is still with PGE, which now operates as an independent company -- he had planned to retire at 60, and now thinks he has to work until at least 67.
'What we do is hard, hard work," he said of the life of a lineman, being outdoors at all hours of the night, climbing utility poles often in inclement weather. "But what keeps you going is the fact that you can retire and finally get some rest. They've taken that away from us. It was pure greed."
Even those who lost less have strong feelings about their former bosses.
"The sad part is the emotional toll it's taken over the years," said Steve Lacy, a 25-year veteran of PGE. Lacey, 50, said he lost somewhere around $200,000 in the ordeal and has had to put off retirement by at least 5 years.
But Lacey said he was lucky and that he really feels for some of his older co-workers who had more money in their accounts and fared far worse.
"It's just not right to have to watch guys in their early 60s climb poles for a living because someone else stole," he said.
Enron jury selection starts. Click here