Court Sides With Ex-Enron Exec, Rules On Gay Rights

The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously overturned part of the conviction of former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling, who is serving a 24-year sentence for his role in the collapse of the company. The court also ruled on a case involving a ballot measure in Washington state to repeal a gay rights law.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The Supreme Court today sided with former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling. Skilling is serving a 24-year sentence for his role in the collapse of Enron, but the court unanimously overturned part of his conviction.

Our legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is covering this story from the Supreme Court. Nina, good morning.

NINA TOTENBERG: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And she's with us live. I guess most of us will remember what Enron was - a collapse of a giant energy company, giant allegations of fraud. But what exactly was Skilling convicted of?

TOTENBERG: Well, this case involves more than Jeffrey Skilling, but he's the sort of perfect example. He was charged with a bunch of criminal acts, and one of them, or several of them, were what are called honest services fraud. This is sort of the key generic law that the government uses to prosecute white-collar executives and public officials for what they view as criminal activity.

INSKEEP: Does it basically mean what the name says: You're supposed to provide honest services and honest opinions...

TOTENBERG: Right.

INSKEEP: ...to people, and if you don't, it's fraud?

TOTENBERG: Yes. And what the government said was that Skilling conspired to defraud Enron shareholders by misrepresenting the company's fiscal health and thereby artificially inflating its stock price so that he could get more money as an executive and more money for his stock shares.

That part of the indictment, of the conviction, was voided today by the Supreme Court. The court said that the honest services law is sufficiently vague, that it had to narrow it so that people would know what they could be charged with. And under the law, as written, the court said the only way it could uphold it would be if - it would only uphold bribes and kickbacks, and since Skilling didn't do either of those, it would void those convictions.

But he has other convictions that he still is in jail for, and those will go back now to the lower courts, which will have to decide whether his trial was so infected by the honest services fraud allegations that he has to have a whole new trial on things that he was convicted of. That may - does that make any sense to you?

INSKEEP: It does make sense. You're basically saying he was convicted of a number of things at once, and the Supreme Court has thrown out one of them, or a major group of them, but not quite everything that he was convicted of. And so the question is whether he got a fair trial at all, basically.

TOTENBERG: That's correct. But what this means for the Department of Justice is that all of its honest fraud convictions are in trouble. All the ones that are in the pipeline, and even conceivably some that have been done with for years -you can imagine that there would be circumstances in which people would now say I shouldn't be in jail because I was convicted under unconstitutional - a statute that was unconstitutional was applied to me.

INSKEEP: Does Jeffrey Skilling stay in prison for the moment, as far as we know?

TOTENBERG: As far as we know.

INSKEEP: And he's serving that 24-year sentence at a federal minimum security prison. We're talking with NPR's Nina Totenberg, who's following developments at the Supreme Court today.

And I understand there was another big ruling this morning involving a ballot measure in Washington State?

TOTENBERG: Yes, this was a ballot measure involving gay rights. And opponents of gay rights wanted to get this particular measure onto the ballot. And under the state law, people who sign - petitioners who sign something that says I want to get this on the ballot, their names are public record and can be accessed by the public. Well, the gay rights advocates challenged that, said it would subject them to harassment.

The Supreme Court, however, said the Public Records Act was a valid exercise of the government's power to ensure that its elections are open and proper and well done, and that the only way that the gay right - the opponents of gay rights could possibly succeed would be if they could show that there was actual harassment.

INSKEEP: So very briefly here, the essence of this case is whether you can collect petition signatures and not have them published so that people could attack you for supporting a gay rights measure.

TOTENBERG: That's right, or in this case it was an anti-gay rights measure. I may have misspoken. It was an anti-gay rights measure. And people - the anti-gay rights folks didn't want their names out in the public. Today they lost but they still have a chance to go back to court and try again.

INSKEEP: Nina, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: NPR's Nina Totenberg with an update on two cases before the Supreme Court, one involving a petition, a ballot measure in Washington State, the other - the really big one - throwing out part of the conviction of Enron's Jeffrey Skilling. And we'll bring you more as we learn it.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.