Jan. 31, 2006 -- It's Andrew Fastow's fault. So said Jeff Skilling's lead defense attorney in opening arguments in the Enron trial today.
Attorney Daniel Petrocelli blames Fastow, the former finance chief, and two others, former treasurer Ben Glisan and Fastow aide Michael Kopper.
"They ripped Enron off, they stole. … The evidence is going to be what Fastow stole; [what] Glisan and Kopper stole was hidden from Ken Lay and Skilling," he said.
"The evidence in this case is that Mr. Skilling didn't steal one nickel, you would have heard it, and you didn't. Not one nickel. They accuse him of a lot of things, but they don't accuse him of that," Petrocelli said.
The prosecution went first, telling the jury, "This is a simple case. It is not about accounting, it's about lies and choices. Defendants Lay and Skilling chose to falsely assure the public there were no problems at Enron. They chose to lie."
The conspiracy trial of Lay, Enron's founder, and Skilling, the former CEO, began Monday with jury selection. The case is being called the most scandalous corporate collapse in recent memory.
"We will take you inside the doors of the seventh-largest company, with two men at the head of the company who told lie after lie, lies that deprived common investors of the information they needed to make decisions," Prosecutor Sean Berkowitz told the jury.
Enron was at one time the largest energy trader in the world. It declared bankruptcy in December 2001 and unceremoniously sacked thousands of employees. It also froze its employees' 401(k) retirement programs for a time, during which many workers found most of their life savings were wiped out, as Enron's stock plummeted from $90 a share to less than $1 share in just weeks.
Lay and Skilling are charged with intentionally lying about the health of the company while dumping half a billion dollars of their own stock, charges that both deny. Lay, in a speech to the Houston Forum Club last month, vowed to clear his name and that of the company he built and loved.
"I will testify at my trial. I will do my best to get the truth out. I for one do not wish to leave the responsibility for undertaking the difficult task of clearing Enron and my name to my children or my grandchildren or those willing to dig through the rubble long after we are gone."
Diana Peters once believed in Lay. She worked at Enron for 10 years, starting as a graphic designer. But she has no time for regrets now. She has house payments to make, groceries to buy, and no health insurance. Her husband has been battling cancer for years. He had a biopsy last week; they will get the results on Wednesday.
Peters will go to the trial if she can get time off from work. After all, she has been waiting years to see someone at Enron held accountable for its collapse.
"I think closure for me is going to be when Jeff Skilling goes to jail. This has been a nightmare that keeps going and going and going. I sometimes feel like I don't have a permanent job because my resume is only going to say Enron, and people look at us as being like our bosses," she said.
The first witness takes the stand Wednesday. The trial is expected to last four months.