Special report: Enron on trial Full coverage
Skilling gets 24 years
Ex-Enron CEO sentenced for his role in the grand-daddy of corporate frauds.
By Shaheen Pasha, CNNMoney.com staff writer

HOUSTON (CNNMoney.com) -- Former Enron Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling, who gained infamy as the man who orchestrated the largest corporate fraud in history, was sentenced to more than 24 years in jail Monday.

The 52-year-old Skilling stood stoically, his hands clasped before him, as presiding Judge Sim Lake handed down his sentence. His wife Rebecca, however, sobbed quietly in her seat as victims of Enron's collapse watched the proceedings stone-faced.

Famous faces in corporate crime

Speaking to reporters outside of the courthouse, Skilling said he was disappointed by the judge's sentence but was hopeful that "if we review this in a calmer atmosphere," the appellate judges may find in his favor.

Skilling and his attorneys have maintained that he couldn't receive a fair trial in Houston - the epicenter of Enron's implosion. "I'm not happy about it but I believe deep down - and this is not an act - I believe I am innocent," he asserted.

Judge Lake ordered Skilling to remain on house arrest until the Bureau of Prisons determined his date of incarceration. He denied the government's motion for Skilling to be taken into custody immediately.

In addition, Judge Lake denied defense attorney Daniel Petrocelli's request to lower the sentence by 10 months in order to allow Skilling to serve his sentence at a lower security- level penitentiary.

Instead, Lake recommended that Skilling served his sentence at a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility in Butner, N.C.

Skilling was also ordered to pay about $50 million into a restitution fund for Enron's victims, rather than monetary damages to the government.

Legal experts had estimated that Skilling could receive between 20 and 30 years behind bars. Skilling was convicted in May of 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors.

"Skilling got the equivalent of a life sentence," said Thomas Ajamie, a securities lawyer at Ajamie LLP. "His prime years have been taken from him but if you take into consideration how many people lost everything, it's a fair sentence."

Skilling issued a statement before the court prior to hearing his sentence in which he said he felt remorse about the losses incurred by the victims of Enron's collapse as well as the pain suffered by his family and community.

But to the end he had maintained he did nothing wrong and blamed outside factors for Enron's implosion.

"I am innocent of these charges. I am innocent of every one of these charges," he said.

"We will continue to pursue my constitutional rights."

It's a mantra that he maintained throughout the trial earlier this year. But there was a noticeable difference in the courtroom as Skilling stood alone before the judge clad in a somber dark blue suit. Skilling was originally slated to face sentencing alongside his co-conspirator, Enron found Kenneth Lay. Lay was convicted of 10 counts of fraud and conspiracy.

Lay passed away in July of heart problem. With his death, Lay's conviction was legally vacated. Even so, some of Lay's family members were present in court in support of Skilling. His daughter Elizabeth Vittor -- who also served on their legal team -- embraced Skilling's family, seated in the front rows and Lay's sister tearfully hugged Skilling's wife Rebecca before court was in session.

Victim disappointment

After the sentence was rendered, former Enron jurors who attended Monday's proceedings said they thought the decision was fair but were disappointed Skilling still appeared to not take responsibility for his actions.

"He'll deny it till the end" said juror Freddy Delgado in an interview. "He was paid big bucks to be the CEO and the buck stopped with him."

And some victims felt that no amount of jail time was enough to punish Skilling for his crime.

"If it had been me, I would have given him more time," said Charles Prestwood, who lost $1.3 million when Enron collapsed. "I guess you can't win them all."

More than 4,000 Enron employees lost their jobs - and many their life savings - when the company declared bankruptcy in December 2001. Investors lost billions.

Still, government officials are hailing the sentence as a win.

"Today's sentence is a measure of justice for the thousands of people who lost their jobs and millions of dollars in investments when Enron collapsed under the weight of the fraud perpetrated by the company's top executives," said Assistant Attorney General Fisher in a statement. "Jeffrey Skilling will now spend more than 24 years in prison for committing one of the largest frauds in the history of corporate America."

Enron's collapse marked the first of the high-profile corporate scandals that rocked the nation after the 1990s economic boom, followed by WorldCom, Global Crossing, Adelphia and Tyco (Charts).

The wave of fraud led to passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley law that tightened oversight of how American companies are audited.

But the Enron saga is unlikely to end with the bang of the gavel this week.

Since Enron's implosion almost five years ago, Skilling has insisted that he committed no crimes at the company - even taking the stand in his own defense during the long-awaited Enron trial earlier this year.

Speaking to reporters outside of the courthouse, Skilling said he didn't regret the decision not to reach a settlement with the government, adding that he would not admit to a crime he didn't commit in order to receive a lighter sentence.

Former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow pled guilty and received a sentence of 6 years while former accounting chief Richard Causey also cut a deal with prosecutors. He is scheduled for sentencing in November and could face up to 7 years behind bars.

Skilling's attorney Petrocelli said he was optimistic that a successful appeal in another Enron-related case would help Skilling's appeal.

In that case, lawyers for four Merrill Lynch (Charts) employees convicted of helping Enron defraud the public were able to convince an appeals court that the four were simply doing their jobs.

Skilling is hoping to convince the judge that he didn't do anything to deliberately profit from Enron's demise and that he tried to perform his duties to the best of his abilities.

Legal experts, however, think Skilling may be overreaching in his bid to remain free.

"It looks to me to be a very, very long shot," Sheldon Zenner, head of the white-collar crime practice at Kattan Muchin Rosenman, a Chicago law firm, said before the sentencing. "To use a football analogy, it's a Hail Mary pass with no time left on the clock."

For one thing, Skilling was the leader of the company, putting him at the helm making decisions that later resulted in Enron's collapse.

"He's the one that set policies and, according to the evidence, he masterminded the fraud," Jacob Zamansky, a lawyer and expert on securities law, said before the sentencing. "He's in a much different position from someone levels below [who was] just following orders."

But while legal observers see a very small chance of Skilling's conviction getting overturned based on that issue, some expect that Skilling may stand a better chance on appeal on other grounds.

"The appellate courts will look long and hard at the verdict on this case," Jacob Frenkel, a partner at the Maryland law firm Shulman Rogers, said before the verdict. "And the appellate courts haven't been shy about sharing their disagreement with Enron-related convictions in the past."

He noted that instructions to the jury may be one area for a successful appeal.


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