Skilling Takes Stand, Proclaims Innocence at Enron Trial

Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling takes the stand at his trial in Houston and testifies that he is innocent of any crime. He faces 28 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling took the stand yesterday in his own defense. He told jurors that he was absolutely innocent of any crime. As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports from Houston, the next week of testimony will likely decide Skilling's fate.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

Jeff Skilling had a strange look on his face, as he took the oath and then stepped forward to take the stand. He stepped into the box, then stepped out again, and asked if he could have a cup of water. It was the moment everyone watching the trial had been waiting for, Skilling on the stand. But it was clear from the look on his face he did not share the sentiment. His lawyer, Daniel Petrocelli, acknowledged the moment, and asked the former top executive how he was doing.

I guess in some ways my life is on the line, Skilling said with a grim expression, So I'm a little nervous. And with that, Skilling's testimony began. The first subject Skilling took on was his sudden and unexpected departure in August of 2001, four months before Enron went bankrupt. In an attempt to deflect the perception that he was fleeing a sinking ship in a million dollar lifeboat, Skilling insisted he never would have abandoned Enron had he known what the future would hold.

Not in my wildest dreams. It's almost inconceivable what happened, he said. He testified that he now believes that his leaving hastened Enron's doom. The problem with history, Skilling said, is that you know what happened but you don't know what could have happened. I will always regret that I left.

As he has before, Skilling insisted that Enron was in fine shape when he left that summer. But that assertion conflicts with testimony from numerous prosecution witnesses, who told the jury that as the year progressed, Enron began to circle the drain. Former vice president and top accountant, Sharon Watkins, described for jury how after Skilling left the company that August, she pleaded with Ken Lay to act before it was too late. But yesterday, Skilling said he left for personal reasons because he neglected his family for too long. He took a rafting trip with his son, joined the governing board of his alma mater, SMU, and thought about teaching.

But the bad news coming out of Enron's scuttled those happy plans. Skilling testified that he watched in disbelief as the company posted billion dollar losses the next quarter. He said he was mystified by it all, blindsided. Skilling offered to come back to Enron, saying he believed his presence would reassure Wall Street that things were going to be okay. But Ken Lay and the board of directors rejected his proposal, telling him that, quote, "It would look like just another weird thing at Enron."

In a desperate and futile attempt to save the company, Skilling tried to inspire investor confidence by raising 200 million dollars, through pooling his money with funds from other top Enron executives. But the plan collapsed when Enron Vice Chairman Cliff Baxter, one of Skilling's closest friends, backed out. A short time later, Baxter shot himself to death in his Mercedes. As he spoke of Baxter, of how he found out about the suicide, Skilling kept his face expressionless. But in the gallery, his wife quietly wept. Skilling's testimony is expected through next week.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Houston.

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