Skilling Set to Testify in Enron Trial

The trial of former Enron executives Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay enters a critical phase Thursday, when Skilling is expected to testify. Accused of conspiring to deceive investors, analysts and the public about Enron's financial condition, Skilling faces decades in prison if convicted.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

In Houston, the trial of former Enron executives Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay is entering a critical phase. Former CEO Jeff Skilling is expected to take the stand tomorrow. He's accused of conspiring to deceive investors, analysts and the public about Enron's financial condition, and he faces decades in prison if convicted.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn is at the federal courthouse in Houston and joins us now. And, Wade, this can be a risky thing for defendants to take the stand. It can open the door to very hostile cross-examination. Why is Jeffrey Skilling taking this chance?

WADE GOODWYN: There are several reasons, I think. The circumstances of the case dictate that he needs to take the stand in his own defense to try to explain to the jury his theory about the evidence they've seen. You know, he's accused of engaging in this long-running deception conspiring with other senior Enron executives. Andy Fastow, the former CFO, testified that Skilling told him to "give me as much of that juice as you can," and he was referring to the income from these off the books partnerships. And Fastow told the jury straight out that he and Skilling committed crimes together.

On another occasion, at a small meeting of top Enron executives, Skilling said, "They're on to us," after certain Wall Street analysts had begun asking very pointed questions. Skilling can't let this testimony stand unanswered, or his goose is cooked. And there's no one else to explain but him, so there's that.

But also, Skilling wants to take the stand. From the very beginning he's wanted to try to explain. I think Skilling has confidence, or at least historically has had confidence, in his ability to make others see it his way.

BLOCK: Now, when you say he's had confidence, in that historically, what are some examples of that?

GOODWYN: Well, his testimony before Congress is one example. He went before Congress when he could have taken the Fifth, when plenty of other executives, including Ken Lay, declined to answer questions. I think Jeff Skilling felt very confident then, but he's never had to swim against this kind of current before.

The jury now knows more about Enron's finances than 99% of the planet, and they've learned all about it from the prosecutor's point of view. And it's not just the jury who is affected by that. Skilling himself has sat there day after day and listened to the men and women he used to work with testify against him. That's got to affect even the strongest man, shake his confidence a bit in his own point of view.

BLOCK: What is Jeffrey Skilling expected to say when he does take the stand tomorrow?

GOODWYN: Let me try to characterize it generally. It's the defense's contention that there was no wrongdoing at Enron at all, save for the theft of tens of millions of dollars by Andy Fastow and his minions. So I think it's safe to say that there's going to be some finger pointing at Fastow.

But in order to survive this prosecution, Skilling intends to try to convince the jury that outside of Fastow, there were no crimes committed at Enron, that the company didn't go bankrupt because he was playing fast and loose with the books, but because there was, what he likes to say, "a run on the bank" after investors lost confidence.

He's going to repeat over and over again that these off balance sheet deals that prosecutors say sunk the company were approved by accountants at Arthur Anderson. That's going to be the defense lynchpin. I was CEO, I didn't know about the details, but I knew the accountants had signed off on these deals and I had to trust those guys.

BLOCK: And after Jeffrey Skilling, the other defendant, Kenneth Lay, will be taking the stand.

GOODWYN: Yes, that will probably be two weeks. It'll probably take Skilling a full week to get through his testimony, and then there will probably be a few other smaller witnesses, and then Lay will take the stand for his performance.

BLOCK: Wade, how long has this trial been going on now?

GOODWYN: It's been going on two months.

BLOCK: And how's the jury holding up? Can you get any sense of whether they're able to digest everything they've heard?

GOODWYN: I think this is a good jury. They have paid very close attention. They take notes. They seem to get along with each other very well. The judge is impressed, he has made several comments about how appreciative he is and impressed he is with them.

BLOCK: NPR's Wade Goodwyn, who's covering the Enron trial in Houston.

Wade, thanks very much.

GOODWYN: It's my pleasure.

BLOCK: And you can read profiles of Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth Lay, and other key players in the Enron trial at our website, NPR.org.

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