Enron Jury Pool Told Not to Seek Vengeance
By KRISTEN HAYS and ERIN McCLAM,
AP Business Writers
A federal judge told a group of potential jurors that their job was not to seek vengeance against Enron Corp. founder Kenneth Lay and former CEO Jeffrey Skilling as jury selection began on Monday in the premier criminal trial to emerge from the biggest corporate scandal in recent years.
Lay and Skilling arrived at a federal courthouse in Houston, looking relaxed and ready for the selection process, which could prove difficult in a city where thousands lost their jobs because of the Enron scandal.
"We're looking forward to it. We're ready," said Daniel Petrocelli, Skilling's lead trial lawyer. Skilling declined comment, as did Lay, who simply said, "Fine, how are you?" when a reporter asked how he felt.
More than 100 jurors packed a cavernous courtroom to undergo questioning by U.S. District Judge Sim Lake, who has said he plans to seat a panel of 12 jurors and four alternates by day's end. If he succeeds, the long-awaited trial of Enron's former top two corporate titans will get under way Tuesday.
Both Lay and Skilling surveyed the pool before Lake entered the courtroom.
"This is a criminal case. The defendants are Mr. Jeffrey Skilling and Mr. Ken Lay," Lake told the pool. Lay and Skilling then stood up briefly at the judge's request.
When asked upon his arrival to court if he believed a fair jury could be found in Houston, Petrocelli said: "I'm sure hopeful that we can." Last week a flurry of defense efforts failed to move the trial elsewhere to escape a potentially hostile jury pool.
Lake told the pool that the jury box was no place for anyone seeking vengeance.
"We are not looking for people who want to right a wrong or provide remedies for those who suffered from the collapse of Enron," he said.
When the judge asked if any jurors "view this as an opportunity to strike a blow for justice," no one raised a hand.
Enron was once the nation's seventh-largest company, considered an innovative new-economy maverick and admired as a top stock performer. But after a spectacular collapse that left thousands jobless and slammed Wall Street with billions in losses, Lay and Skilling are to be tried on charges including fraud and conspiracy just a few blocks from the firm's former headquarters with its swiveling "E" logo.
David Tonsall, a former Enron pipeline worker who was one of thousands laid off when the company crumbled in December 2001, watched Lay and Skilling arrive. "I'm definitely going to follow it. This is what we've been waiting for."
Skilling, 52, faces 31 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and deceiving auditors for allegedly lying about Enron's financial strength. Lay, 63, faces seven counts of fraud and conspiracy for perpetuating the alleged scheme after Skilling resigned in August 2001.
Both men have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, each could face decades in prison and millions of dollars in penalties.
Sixteen ex-Enron executives have pleaded guilty to crimes and are helping prosecutors. Of those, a chief government witness is expected to be former Enron finance chief Andrew Fastow, who pleaded guilty two years ago to conspiracy for orchestrating schemes to hide Enron debt and inflate profits while skimming millions of dollars for himself on the side. Fastow has claimed Lay and Skilling knew about his off-the-books efforts and approved them.
The judge will question the jury pool himself, having repeatedly rejected defense pleas to allow attorneys to individually probe potential jurors. Lake will allow attorneys to inquire further of individuals based on initial answers.
Enron's crash and the subsequent scandals roiled Wall Street, sent investors fleeing, prompted stiffened white collar penalties and raised regulatory scrutiny over publicly traded companies that spawned a slew of high-profile cases.
Former WorldCom Inc. head Bernard Ebbers awaits a 25-year prison term for orchestrating the $11 billion accounting fraud that bankrupted the company. Martha Stewart did five months in prison and more time confined to work and home for lying about a stock sale. Adelphia Communications Inc. founder John Rigas and his son got double-digit prison terms for robbing the company till.
HealthSouth Corp. founder Richard Scrushy bucked the trend with his acquittal last year of fraud charges despite five former finance chiefs pointing the finger at him in a $2.7 billion scheme to inflate earnings.
The government has a mixed record on Enron.
The U.S. Supreme Court last year overturned former Enron auditor Arthur Andersen LLP's 2002 conviction of obstruction of justice, saying vague instructions allowed jurors to convict without finding criminal intent behind mass shredding of Enron documents as investigations began.
Four former Merrill Lynch & Co. executives and a former midlevel Enron finance executive are in prison for helping push though a loan disguised as a sale to help Enron manipulate earnings, while a former in-house Enron accountant was acquitted.
And five former executives accused of fooling Wall Street into believing Enron's defunct broadband unit was viable face retrials this year after their first trial ended with jurors hung on most charges.
Copyright Â© 2006 The Associated Press.