Accessibility links

Breaking News

Former Enron Chairman Testifies in Conspiracy and Fraud Trial

In a Houston courtroom, it was former Enron Chairman Ken Lay's turn to take the stand in his own defense. He told jurors the failure of the company and his trial, on six counts of fraud and conspiracy, have turned his life into what he called an American nightmare.

As he arrived at the federal courthouse in downtown Houston, Ken Lay smiled and greeted waiting reporters and gave some insight into his preparation for testifying.

"I am ready," he said. "I have prayed a lot."

Inside the courtroom Lay said that even though he was head of the company, he did not know about all that was happening at Enron before it collapsed in December, 2001. He said he was unaware of crooked dealings by Enron's Chief Financial Officer, Andrew Fastow, who pleaded guilty in a plea bargain arrangement with the government and testified earlier in the trial.

On the stand, Lay said Fastow had done a tremendously brilliant job of hiding his dealings from other top executives. Lay said that while he, as Enron's top officer, took responsibility for what happened to the energy-trading company, he could not be held responsible for things that he did not know about.

The 64-year-old Lay served as Chief Executive Officer of Enron for 15 years before becoming Chairman of the Board and turning over the CEO job to Jeff Skilling, who is also on trial with Lay and who finished his testimony last week. Lay took over the job of CEO again after Skilling abruptly resigned in August, 2001. Enron's demise came only a few months later.

While legal experts and others observing the trial in Houston see Lay as a more sympathetic figure than Skilling, they say he will still face a big challenge once his own attorney's questioning ends and federal prosecutors begin their cross examination.

For one thing, prosecutors will want him to explain why he did not take action in August, 2001 when former Enron Vice President Sherron Watkins wrote him a memo warning him that fraudulent activity threatened the company.

Prosecutors will also try to chip away at Lay's claim that he did not knowingly mislead investors and stock analysts by giving glowing reports of Enron's enterprises and hiding information about losses. On the stand Lay firmly denied having lied about the company's financial health.

Lay faces six charges of conspiracy and fraud, while Skilling faces 28 charges. Lay's testimony is expected to continue for most of this week.