Sharing a Trial But Not a Style

From left, Kathryn Ruemmler, John Hueston and Sean Berkowitz are the lead prosecutors in the government's Enron Task Force, which will be trying Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling.
From left, Kathryn Ruemmler, John Hueston and Sean Berkowitz are the lead prosecutors in the government's Enron Task Force, which will be trying Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Kenneth L. Lay made the rounds like a politician at a recent pretrial hearing in Houston, introducing his wife to new faces in the gallery and shaking hands with the prosecutors who want to send him to prison for the rest of his life. But as the legal back-and-forth got underway, Lay rubbed his face and tried to stifle a yawn.

A few feet away, protege Jeffrey K. Skilling threw himself into the action. His eyes alighted on the speakers. He nodded vigorously as his lawyer delivered a point. He scoffed when a prosecutor mentioned a turncoat witness who once had been one of his closest friends at Enron Corp.

The two former corporate titans, who shared a table at the hearing, could scarcely be more different. How jurors assess the credibility of Lay and Skilling, who have said they are likely to testify in their own defense, could emerge as a key factor when they go on trial in January for their roles in the era's most notorious corporate scandal.

The two men will be tried together, along with former chief accounting officer Richard A. Causey, in a proceeding expected to last four to six months.

Lay faces a narrow set of charges for what the government argues was a masterful spin job in which he urged employees and investors to buy stock in the weeks before the Houston energy trader crashed. Skilling, who abruptly left Enron months before its 2001 demise, stands accused of pushing up the stock price by using accounting tricks. Both men maintain their innocence.

Skilling, 52, has leaped into his defense with the same enthusiasm he once brought to the company's rowdy trading floor. At a makeshift war room across the street from the Houston courthouse, Skilling has built shelves that house long rows of binders containing Enron board minutes. His alcove features a Wheaties box that bears his likeness. White boards hanging from the walls are covered with his graphs explaining Enron's history and far-flung business units. His longtime assistant, Sherri Sera, answers the telephones.

Skilling acted "like a one-man army" in erecting the office, said lead attorney Daniel M. Petrocelli. "He brings all that to the case."

Skilling's lawyers say he invested so much energy brainstorming ideas when he was in charge at Enron that he paid little attention to administrative duties, delegating those tasks to subordinates who deceived him. Prosecutors have a different take: They say a man of such intellectual capacity knew exactly when his company began to go off the rails.

Lay, for his part, so far has played the role of amiable, well-mannered diplomat at pretrial hearings. The strategy mirrors his defense: that he focused on outside pursuits, such as national energy policy and contacts with world leaders, rather than the company's bookkeeping practices. In an unusual move for a person on the brink of a criminal trial, he is planning to deliver a speech today to a nonprofit public-speaking group on whose board he once sat.

Lay, 63, also continues to appear on the social and charity circuit, although less often than when Enron was ranked as one of the nation's largest corporations and he was in constant demand.

"I have thought from the beginning that the way to handle it was to be as open as possible," said Michael Ramsey, his Houston-based defense lawyer. "Ken has always been a very public man."

Even so, Lay, who holds a doctorate in economics, grudgingly declined to speak under oath before Congress in 2002 on his lawyers' advice.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company