Skilling, Nervous and Emotional, Takes the Stand

Jeffrey K. Skilling, left, and his attorney, Daniel M. Petrocelli, returning to the courthouse in Houston after lunch yesterday. The trial is in its 11th week.
Jeffrey K. Skilling, left, and his attorney, Daniel M. Petrocelli, returning to the courthouse in Houston after lunch yesterday. The trial is in its 11th week. (By Pat Sullivan -- Associated Press)
By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

HOUSTON, April 10 -- Jeffrey K. Skilling, the brash, self-made executive who powered Enron Corp. to international acclaim only to watch it descend into bankruptcy protection and notoriety, took the witness stand Monday in his fraud trial to declare himself "absolutely innocent."

Skilling, 52, admitted he was emotional, even nervous, as he stepped forward during the 11th week of the trial to take an oath to tell the truth. "I guess in some way my life is on the line."

Defending himself against charges that he lied to the public about Enron's health and bailed out when he knew the company was failing, the former chief executive took jurors on what he described as his own emotional journey, from the excitement of building one of the nation's most powerful companies to what he called his exhaustion and distress at the toll his commitment to Enron had taken on his own family. Later, Enron's collapse led to drinking and depression, he told the jurors.

Skilling, who earned $152 million from 1999 to his departure in 2001, said he had worked tirelessly over a decade to transform Enron from a stodgy pipeline company into a business that traded energy. Proclaiming the firm "the finest company in the world," Skilling told the jury "there was excitement, there was electricity" back in the days when he strode through the doors of the glass tower that once dominated Houston.

But by 2000, the long work days had turned into something that was "emotionally exhausting," Skilling said. "Some people would say I was obsessed by Enron. . . . I had not spent the time I should have spent in my family."

He returned from a three-week African safari with the realization that he no longer wanted to lead the company. He broached the idea with Enron founder and then-Chairman Kenneth L. Lay, his charming, charismatic fellow defendant who will testify later in the trial.

"I said, 'I really hate this job,' " Skilling recounted, looking at Lay at the defense table, with Lay watching him. "And I think Ken said, 'Oh no, not again.' " The departure was averted.

Months later, in 2001, on what he called "that fateful day, Friday the 13th of July," Skilling's desire to leave returned in force. He said he drafted a resignation letter and talked with his son, asking, "Would you still respect me if I do that?" As Skilling described the moment from the witness stand, his wife, Rebecca Carter, a former secretary to Enron's board, looked over at her stepson with tear-filled eyes.

The story Skilling told the jury yesterday is counter to the prosecution's contention that he saw Enron on the verge of collapse and decided to get out while he could, rushing to sell his stock before what he knew became public.

"The charges against me are wrong," Skilling continued, as jurors craned forward to hear him. "I am innocent of those charges. I will fight those charges until the day I die."

He asked for a cup of water and frequently looked out at relatives in the front row, including his wife, his brother, his former wife, two sons, and his 22-year-old daughter, who left the room briefly and returned clutching tissues in both hands.

Skilling, wearing a gray suit, white shirt and a blue and green tie, offered few glimpses of the arrogance for which he was known inside the energy trading company and which he displayed in testimony before Congress in 2002, just months after employees lost billions of dollars in retirement savings and his company had become synonymous with fraud.

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