In Enron Trial, Witnesses' Quirks And Stamina Are on the Stand

Former Enron executive Sherron Watkins after her Wednesday testimony. Under cross-examination, she admitted that her nickname was
Former Enron executive Sherron Watkins after her Wednesday testimony. Under cross-examination, she admitted that her nickname was "Buzzsaw." (By Pat Sullivan -- Associated Press)
By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 18, 2006

HOUSTON, March 16 -- When former Enron Corp. executive Sherron Watkins took the witness stand Wednesday, she spoke confidently of the failings of her former bosses, chief executive Jeffrey K. Skilling and chairman Kenneth L. Lay.

The media-savvy Watkins, who won plaudits from Congress and the public for her warnings that the Houston company would collapse, volunteered opinions about everything from accounting strategy to board members she called inept.

But on cross-examination, defense lawyers took one of Watkins's apparent strengths -- her outspokenness -- and turned it against her.

Ron Woods, a lawyer for Skilling, asked whether Watkins had developed a reputation at Enron for overheated judgments and for failing to listen, and Watkins more or less concurred.

"I found out my nickname was 'Buzzsaw,' " the witness said.

Seven weeks into the blockbuster fraud trial of Lay and Skilling, defense lawyers have tried to wear down the government's witnesses with questions tailored to exploit personality quirks, large or small. Cross-examination, after all, is a high-stakes game of endurance and amateur psychology -- a matter of finding a witness's Achilles' heel, that trait most likely to undermine their performances on the witness stand.

And, in this case, the defense has plenty of weapons at its disposal. "The fact is, the defense does have a somewhat unusual amount of material to cross-examine them with," said Washington criminal defense lawyer E. Lawrence Barcella Jr. of the Enron investigation, which generated countless articles and voluminous written reports from Congress, a bankruptcy examiner, the company's board and federal regulators.

The defense came out of the gate in February determined to test the endurance of the government's witnesses, many of them former executives who pleaded guilty and agreed to testify in exchange for reduced prison terms. Former investor relations chief Mark E. Koenig, the fraud trial's first witness, remained on the stand for eight days -- including five of protracted cross-examination in which a tired Koenig sometimes appeared to agree with the defense on certain points, if only to shorten his ordeal.

Questions to Kevin P. Hannon, a former official in Enron's high-speed-Internet unit who followed Koenig to the stand, appealed to the jury's sense of humor -- and Hannon's apparent lack of one.

Hannon delivered one of the most surprising bits of testimony so far -- saying under oath that Skilling uttered, "They're on to us," in a May 2001 meeting at which high-level executives discussed a research report suggesting that Enron's stock was overvalued. In a prosecution case built on subtle, indirect testimony, that quote resonated.

But Skilling lawyer Mark Holscher managed to diminish its impact. He underscored Hannon's stiff demeanor, repeatedly highlighting the witness's inability to react to a joke. Holscher suggested that Skilling often employed sarcasm to deride investors who bet that Enron's stock price would fall, implying that the "They're on to us" remark was a note of humor that everyone else in the room picked up but Hannon.

"Do you recall Mr. Skilling making reference to the Mr. Bill segment on 'Saturday Night Live'? The gag routine with Mr. Bill, 'Ooooh, noooo, Mr. Bill'?" Holscher asked.

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