In the recent annals of corporate fraud, the names Enron, Tyco and WorldCom ring the loudest.
But for residents of Topeka, Kan., the former leaders of the local utility company have become just as infamous.
In a case that some call "the Enron of Kansas," the former chief executive and the onetime top dealmaker at Westar Energy Inc. today will face trial on 40 fraud and conspiracy charges.
The prosecution's tale includes allegations that the former Westar officials ordered a $6.5 million office renovation and a $29,000 television cabinet at the same time the utility was firing hundreds of workers for economic reasons. Top brass also allegedly took $750,000 worth of personal trips on company aircraft and reaped millions from a relocation program without ever moving, prosecutors say -- all without the knowledge and consent of the board of directors.
At the center of the case is former chief executive David C. Wittig, a Wall Street investment banker and Kansas native who returned home to buy a red Ferrari and drive the staid electricity company into a new era of deregulation.
Wittig, 49, first drew widespread attention in 1986, when as a young Salomon Brothers employee he appeared on the cover of Fortune magazine, boasting about his outsized salary. Now the government wants Wittig to forfeit nearly $28 million he allegedly looted from Westar. He and former deputy Douglas T. Lake, 54, could spend decades behind bars if they are convicted.
Government lawyers claim the men "perverted corporate programs for their own personal profit" and "sought to systematically loot Westar of money and assets," according to the July indictment.
Although the Westar case has drawn comparisons to Enron, analysts say it more closely resembles the prosecutions of top executives at Tyco International Ltd. and Adelphia Communications Corp. In those cases, corporate officials were accused of taking advantage of their power and charging extravagant personal items to the company.
The ultimate question, legal experts say, is whether such perks were approved by a company's board of directors.
Most of the charges relate to Wittig and Lake's allegedly improper use of corporate aircraft for their own ends. Prosecutor Richard Hathaway will argue Wittig took his family on a 10-day jaunt to England and France in July 2002 without reimbursing the company, and that Lake used the company plane "as a shuttle" to fly back and forth between Kansas and the suburban New York home Westar had paid him to sell in order to relocate to corporate headquarters.
But defense lawyers counter the case is a business dispute run amok -- an argument over management style and executive pay that belongs in arbitration, not a criminal courtroom. Wittig and Lake are still fighting the company for more than $180 million in deferred compensation and other benefits stemming from their departure under pressure in late 2002. Lake has said in court papers that he sold both his Kansas and New York homes and that he lives with his wife's parents in Connecticut.
The defense is likely to stress that a $9 million internal investigation conducted by the New York law firm Debevoise & Plimpton turned up no evidence of underlying accounting fraud at Westar, which serves 650,000 business and residential customers and posts annual revenue of more than $1 billion.
"The question is, is there an appropriate use of corporate assets for corporate purposes?" said Charles M. Elson, a corporate governance professor at the University of Delaware. "If it has not been authorized by the board, that would be considered a misuse of corporate assets. That's at the heart of a lot of the corporate governance scandals we've seen."
What the board of directors at Westar knew, or didn't know, will be a central focus of the trial. Several prominent current and former board members, including the onetime chancellor of the University of Kansas, appear on the government's list of 97 possible witnesses. So does the interior decorator who helped outfit Wittig's mansion -- once the home of storied governor and failed Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon -- with more than $111,000 in window treatments, a $9,480 pot rack and a $1,200 bronze alligator.
"Every act that is charged in the indictment was either authorized or approved by the board of directors," said Adam S. Hoffinger, a Washington-based lawyer for Wittig. "Everything was open. Everything was papered. And everything was reviewed by outside accountants, lawyers, investment bankers and consultants."
Added Edward J.M. Little, the defense lawyer for Lake: "Doug Lake is confident that once all the facts come out, they will show the board of directors approved all aspects of his compensation and were aware of all management activities throughout, and he'll be vindicated in this case."
Wittig and Lake are not expected to blame each other for the alleged fraud, and it remains unclear whether they will testify in their own defense. The trial could last two or three months, in part because of the volume of documents, including employment contracts and reports from lawyers, accountants and compensation consultants, according to lawyers taking part in the case.
Although U.S. District Judge Julie A. Robinson denied a defense request to move the trial to Denver because of intense negative publicity in Kansas, she has ruled for Wittig on a few key points. For instance, the judge said the jury will not be able to hear that Wittig has been sentenced to 51 months in prison on a related bank fraud case. He is appealing the conviction.
Meanwhile, Westar is fighting charges lodged last month by a Texas grand jury that claim the company made improper contributions to a political action committee with ties to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). A company spokesman has said the $25,000 donation to Texans for a Republican Majority was legal.
Staff researcher Richard S. Drezen contributed to this report.