Lawyers for former Enron Corp. chief executive Jeffrey K. Skilling yesterday urged a federal judge to transfer his blockbuster fraud trial out of Houston, citing a toxic atmosphere in which respondents to a recent poll they commissioned called Skilling a "crook," a "pig" and an "economic terrorist."
Defense lawyers said that local prejudice against their client is so extensive that his constitutional right to a fair trial could be breached if the case remains in Enron's home town. The energy trading company's collapse in late 2001 cost more than 4,000 Enron workers their jobs and harmed nearly every part of Houston's economy -- from downtown real estate and nearby restaurants to scores of local charities.
Former Enron chairman Kenneth L. Lay and accounting chief Richard A. Causey, who are accused of conspiring with Skilling to manipulate the company's earnings, joined in the motion yesterday. All three men have pleaded not guilty. The defense team asked U.S. District Judge Simeon T. Lake III to move the case to a less polarized city, such as Atlanta, Denver or Phoenix, where fewer people taking part in a defense-funded poll said they had been harmed by the company's bankruptcy.
Skilling employed a series of experts to assess local media coverage and to tap into allegedly simmering resentments among Houston area residents. Nearly one in three of the 773 Houstonians who took part in a random phone survey last month said they personally knew someone who had been hurt by Enron's demise. Almost as many offered negative comments when they were asked what words came to mind when they heard the name Jeff Skilling.
"Cheat. Liar. Thief . . ." said one Houston resident. "He is a weasel and he is dishonest," said another quoted by Skilling's lawyers.
Legal experts said that motions to transfer cases rarely succeed because judges prefer to question prospective jurors about their opinions before taking such a drastic step.
"They're not looking for a group of people who haven't heard anything," said Stephen A. Saltzburg, a professor at George Washington University Law School. "They're looking for jurors who say they can be fair."
Judges moved the D.C. area sniper cases out of the Washington metropolitan area and transferred the Oklahoma City bombing prosecution to Denver, reasoning that those murders instilled fear across an entire region. Similarly, the widespread financial fallout from Enron across the Houston landscape may be the strongest legal argument working for Enron's former leaders, some law professors said.
Skilling's lawyers argued that bad publicity has not eroded in the three years since Enron filed for bankruptcy protection. Skilling and Lay both were named "Best Local Boy Gone Bad" this year by a Houston alternative newspaper. And they cited the derogatory lyrics in a rap album released by a former Enron employee who calls himself "N-Run."
Andrew Weissmann, director of the Justice Department's Enron Task Force, declined to comment yesterday. Prosecutors will respond in court papers due later this month. The task force was created after the U.S. attorney's office in Houston recused itself from the case, saying too many lawyers or their relatives had personal investments or connections to Enron.
Judges presiding over other Enron-related cases have decided to keep those trials in Houston. Accounting firm Arthur Andersen LLP was convicted of obstructing justice in 2002. Last week, another Houston federal jury convicted four former Merrill Lynch & Co. executives and a onetime Enron finance official of entering into a shady deal to help Enron meet earnings targets.
The same jury acquitted a former Enron accountant of all the charges against her, suggesting that jurors do not reflexively decide that people tied to the company are guilty, lawyers following the case said.