Enron Corp.'s creditors could be entitled to recover as much as $5 billion in assets that may have been improperly transferred to outside partnerships and other entities as part of the Houston energy trader's systematic campaign to inflate its earnings and conceal debts, a bankruptcy court examiner has concluded.
By aggressively using six accounting techniques, the report said, Enron reported debt of only $10 billion at the end of 2000, rather than an actual $22 billion.
Neal Batson, an Atlanta attorney appointed by the court in New York in May, also said creditors should be entitled to recover $74 million in company loans former Enron chairman Kenneth L. Lay received in the year before the company's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Lay's representatives have said the loans were handled properly.
Batson also said that former Enron chief financial officer Andrew S. Fastow, who is under federal criminal indictment in the case, and his family received $60.6 million in fees, profits and other payments in his role as manager of two private partnerships that played critical roles in inflating Enron's earnings. Enron's board reported a year ago that he had made "more than" $30 million.
The report, covering more than 2,000 pages, is the most comprehensive view to date of the web of accounting and tax transactions designed by the Houston company's executives, lawyers and accountants, beginning in the mid-1990s.
While Enron spent tens of millions of dollars hiring experts to defend the deals, Batson challenged their legal and accounting decisions. Enron relied so heavily on the largely hidden transactions to boost its reported revenue and profits that its financial reports to shareholders "bore little resemblance" to its actual operating performance, he concluded.
In 2000, 96 percent of the profit Enron reported came from deals with outside entities it set up with Fastow and others, the report said.
Enron also manipulated tax rules through complex transactions that generated "phantom" tax losses and other questionable deductions designed to raise the company's reported after-tax profits, the examiner found. The tax deals produced nearly $1 billion in artificial profits over a six-year period, becoming "kind of like cocaine -- they got hooked on it," according to what Enron's former top tax counsel, Robert J. Hermann, told Batson's staff.
Besides seeking to determine whether assets transferred outside the company might be recovered for creditors, Batson is looking at whether Enron's banks, and legal and accounting firms can be sued for damages.
The leading banks, Citibank and J.P. Morgan Chase, played "significant roles" in arranging financial transactions that enabled the company to classify $5 billion in what they knew "were essentially loans" as income -- thus reducing the company's growing debt, Batson said.
A Citibank spokesman said yesterday that the bank relied on Enron and its accountants to report the deals properly. Chase has taken a similar position, although it had no comment yesterday.
The report comes at a crucial point in the federal government's long, many-sided Enron investigation.
Besides the Fastow indictment, prosecutors obtained a guilty plea from one of his top deputies, Michael J. Kopper. According to people close to the case, the administration's Enron Task Force has been preparing a new round of indictments of executives who worked on the accounting deals.
The Batson report, prepared by a team of lawyers and accountants at a cost of several million dollars a month in fees, dissects the Enron transactions in great detail.
"It could provide a roadmap for the prosecutors to figure out how to explain this to a jury," said Robert A. Prentice, professor of business law at the University of Texas. "I'd think it would be extremely helpful to the prosecutors."
But in places, the report may also provide ammunition for defense attorneys, he said.
For example, Batson's report pointedly challenges a crucial Enron transaction tied to the company's failed attempt to distribute first-run movies on demand to households via the Internet. Prosecutors have told defense attorneys that they consider the movie venture a key example of how Enron misled investors with unjustified promises of success.
The venture relied on a partnership with the Blockbuster video chain. But Batson said Enron did not have the technology to deliver Internet movies and Blockbuster lacked first-run movies to distribute.
Enron claimed $111 million in profit from the venture anyhow, relying on extravagant assumptions of how fast the business would emerge, Batson reported. Defense attorneys, however, could show Enron was drawing on estimates by accounting and consulting firms in making its projections, lawyers said.
With all its detail, Batson's report does not attempt to assign responsibility for the transactions among Enron's former top executives and its outside advisers. That, the examiner said, is his next task.