The former Chief Executive Officer of the failed Enron corporation, Jeff Skilling, showed a range of emotion, from anger to humor, during his last day under questioning by his own attorney Thursday. Skilling and former Chairman of the board Ken Lay are on trial for conspiracy and fraud in connection with the December, 2001 collapse of the energy-trading company.
In his testimony Thursday, Jeff Skilling angrily rejected prosecution charges against him and repeated his assertion that he is innocent of all 28 counts in the indictment brought against him.
In a 2001 conference call with stock analysts, prosecutors say, Skilling lied about Enron's retail energy business, saying it was profitable, when it was, in fact, hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. In an angry tone, Skilling called the prosecutors' charge a total misrepresentation. He said the debt was backed up by reserves and that the business was not in trouble.
Skilling answered another charge with humor. Earlier in the trial, former Enron executive Kevin Hannon, a witness for the prosecution, told the court Skilling had once said, "They are on to us!" after reading an article questioning the company's financial reports. Prosecutors have used this testimony to back up their claim that Skilling knew he was lying to investors and was worried that they might be on to his scheme. But in his testimony Thursday Skilling said his comment had been a joke and he repeated the line in a high-pitched voice, producing a moment of general laughter in the courtroom.
Legal analysts following the trial say Skilling's testimony so far has been successful in portraying him to the jury as a likeable man. However, all the questions he has fielded have come from his own attorney, Daniel Petrocelli. Starting next Monday, he will face cross examination by federal prosecutors who will try to undermine his story.
Skilling has maintained that Enron was a healthy company when he left for what he calls personal reasons in August, 2001, just a few months before it collapsed. In his testimony he has blamed the company's demise on stock short sellers, whom he called predatory investors. He said these traders had planted negative stories about Enron in the press in an effort to undermine confidence in the company and drive its stock price down.
Prosecutors are expected to attack that notion vigorously next week in their cross examination. They have contended that both Skilling and Ken Lay knew Enron was a house of cards and got their money out before the company crashed.
The failure of Enron, which was once ranked as the seventh-largest US corporation, was a terrible blow to Wall Street investors and company employees, whose pensions were invested in Enron stock. Both Skilling and Lay could face more than 20 years in prison if convicted on all charges.