Originally created 01/12/04

Are Enron's Lay and Skilling next?



NEW YORK -- It has been more than two years since Enron's collapse, but investors in the once-thriving energy giant might finally get some payback for all their losses. And this has nothing to do with money.

It comes down to whether the time has finally come for Enron's former top executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling to find their way into the prosecutorial hot seat.

So far, they haven't been charged with a single count for their involvement in one of the nation's biggest cases of securities fraud. But that was before Enron's former finance chief Andrew Fastow starting talking about a possible plea deal.

Should prosecutors get Fastow on their side, a new chapter in the Enron story could quickly begin - the one that Enron's battered investors have long been waiting for.

Remember Enron? Yes, it seems so long ago when this scandal hit, the first of many to rock corporate America. Since then, we've had so many more to mull - WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia. The list goes on and on.

Enron imploded in late 2001, causing thousands of workers to lose their jobs and sending Enron's stock into a nose-dive. It was a stunning and shocking collapse. Almost overnight, it went from being one of the hottest, most-talked about companies around, known for its innovation and money-making potential, to filing for bankruptcy court protection.

What makes the Enron case stick out is that prosecutors, at least so far, haven't been able to make a case against Lay or Skilling, even though they were ultimately responsible for running the company.

Their biggest victory came last month when Lay, after a long, drawn-out battle, finally agreed to surrender personal and corporate records to the Securities and Exchange Commission that could be used for criminal and civil investigations in the pursuit of charges against him and others.

Still, it's clear that it has been tough to build a paper-trail leading up to either man. And with each month that passes, the likelihood of that happening seems to diminish.

That's why so much is riding on Fastow. As Enron whistle-blower Sherron Watkins said Thursday, Fastow's knowledge of Enron's inner workings could crack open the case.

"Sometimes I liken Jeff Skilling to a Mafia boss who used particular words. He never said, 'Go whack Joey.' He said, 'Go take care of Joey.' And now that there have been corporate problems, he tries to say that 'I just meant, send Joey on vacation.'

"Andy's almost like the assassin who can now tell the government what his orders were or were not," Watkins told ABC's "Good Morning America."

Fastow is accused of being the mastermind behind a complex web of schemes that hid Enron's debt, inflated profits and allowed him to skim millions of dollars for himself, his family and selected friends and colleagues. Prosecutors say he reaped an estimated $30 million from the web of partnerships he set up.

When Fastow was indicted in October 2002, his lawyers said Skilling and Lay approved his work.

He faces 98 counts of conspiracy, fraud, money laundering, insider trading and other charges, which could give him as much as 40 years in prison should he be convicted of all charges and sentenced to the maximum penalties.

The big question is whether prosecutors can offer him a sweet enough deal that he will be willing to flip on his former bosses. Progress on that front appears forthcoming, but it is still not coming easy.

Andrew Fastow has been negotiating an agreement that would send him to prison and force him to pay $20 million. But that deal hinged on another deal, that of his wife Lea. She also worked for Enron and faces six counts of conspiracy and filing false tax forms for allegedly participating in some of her husband's deals.

A federal judge on Thursday tentatively accepted a plea agreement that puts her in jail for five months - a fraction of the time he would serve but an arrangement that allows their two young sons to avoid going parentless for any length of time.

But by Friday afternoon it looked like the deal was off after a deadline passed for her to accept the judge's conditions for her guilty plea.

It's part of a little flurry of news in the Enron case this week.

On Tuesday, Enron's roadmap for emerging from bankruptcy received a New York judge's initial blessing and now will be sent to creditors to accept or reject the plan that will pay them about one-fifth of the approximately $66.4 billion they are owed in cash and stock.

Maybe things really are starting to change in the Enron story.