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Enron’s Skilling says evidence could free him

NEW ORLEANS – Lawyers and news crews from around the country are expected to jam the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today to hear oral arguments in the case of former Enron Corp. chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, who says new evidence gleaned from the files of federal prosecutors revealed inconsistencies that will exonerate him.

Skilling, who was convicted of conspiracy, fraud, insider trading and lying to accountants in May 2006, is serving a 24-year sentence at a federal prison in Minnesota for his role in the demise of the once-high-flying Houston energy company. The U.S. Department of Justice says his conviction is solid.

Skilling is the highest-ranking executive convicted for shady business deals that led to Enron’s 2001 implosion, which erased thousands of jobs, more than $60 billion in Enron stock value and more than $2 billion in employee pension plans.

Enron founder Kenneth Lay was also convicted on the charges, but he died less than two months later and his convictions were vacated.

Skilling, who will not be present for the appeal, began serving his sentence in December 2006. But last month, evidence came to light that testimony from a key witness, former Enron Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow, might not be as solid as it appeared in court. Though testimony summaries prepared by government prosecutors had Fastow saying Skilling knew about secret side deals, the actual notes of early interviews with Fastow show him waffling on Skilling’s involvement.

Skilling’s attorneys now argue in 258 pages of court briefs that the mischaracterization denied them a chance to disprove the allegations against their client.

Government prosecutors counter in their 238-page reply that Skilling’s arguments are out of context and called them “hyperbolic rhetoric.”

A panel of three Texas judges will hear the case: appeals court Judges Jerry E. Smith of Houston and Edward C. Prado of San Antonio, and Judge Alia Moses Ludlum of the Western District of Texas.