The biggest corporate scandal in U.S. history, the collapse of the Enron Corporation in late 2001, is now being played out in a federal courtroom in Houston, just a few blocks from the building that once served as Enron's corporate headquarters. The trial of former chairman Ken Lay and former Chief Executive Officer Jeff Skilling has drawn media coverage from around the world.
Reporter: Is this a chance to clear your name?
Lay: It certainly is.
A reporter's shouted question elicits a brief response from defendant Ken Lay as he enters the federal court building. Some days that is the best the dozens of reporters, photographers and electronic media crew members can hope for.
The rest of the time, they sit and wait for the lunch break or the end-of-day wrap-up and the possibility that one of the defendants or their lawyers might say something. Government prosecutors never speak.
It can be boring, sitting out on the street all day, waiting for something to happen. But CNN producer Brian Vitagliano tells VOA that for the few who go inside to cover the court proceedings the work is much more intense. "It is a different feeling inside versus outside. Outside, you have a lot more freedom to sit and wait. In this businessthat we are in there is a lot of 'hurry up and wait.' But, inside, you have to be on your toes more and make sure you get the correct information and give it back to your people as accurately and as fast as you can," he said.
During the first couple of days, the media presence in the two or three block area near the federal courthouse was overwhelming. Police, some mounted on horses, patrolled the area and maintained crowd control. But as the trial got started, Vitagliano says coverage diminished and some reporters and TV crews left. "The demand has dropped considerably from the first two days to today. We would get in line at roughly around five o'clock in the morning to try to get one of the 30 media seats available in Judge Lake's courtroom. Today, the demand is just not as great as it was yesterday or the day before," he said.
Vitagliano, who is based in New York City, also contributed to CNN's coverage of another corporate scandal involving the Tyco Corporation, which ended in a mistrial in April, 2004... followed by a new trial, in which the former Chief Executive Officer and Finance Officer were convicted, in September of last year. Vitagliano says these are tricky cases for juries, whose members can get lost in all the numbers and arcane business terminology.
"It is true that there are several numbers and accounting issues involved. It does become dry. I think that was one of the downfalls of the Dennis Koslowski and Mark Schwartz trial, in the Tyco case. The jury became too overwhelmed with the numbers and it took away from what was really going on," he said.
For people in Houston, the Enron trial represents the end of a long, trying time in which the city's star company crashed, leaving thousands of local Enron employees without work. The loss of savings invested in Enron stock was an additional blow. Now, more than four years after the collapse of the company, many Houstonians are simply weary of the whole mess.
Reporter Miya Shay of Houston's KTRK television station says news media teams from outside Houston may have more interest in the story than people here. "In some ways, it seems people who are from the East coast who do a lot of financial analysis and people from overseas who saw this as a great fall in American business, they seem more interested than Houstonians who have been dealing with it for a couple of years," she said.
Shay says there is more intense interest on the part of local people who lost jobs at Enron or who knew people at Enron who lost jobs. "I think, definitely, for those who care deeply about it, who were obviously influenced or impacted by it, they will definitely care about it. For the rest of the city? I don't know if closure is the right word so much as 'get it done with, let us know, one way or the other, are these guys guilty or are these guys innocent or not guilty? Whatever the result is, let us have a result so we can go talk about other things in Houston,' she said.
And she says Houston is anxious to rid itself of the stigma of the Enron scandal. "At some point Houston might not be synonymous with Enron; it might be known for other things," she said.
The trial is expected to last several more weeks. Media attention is likely to increase again when the time comes for the jury to give their verdict.