Scandal of Enron Trial Is a Lack of Theatrics
Michael W. Ramsey, the silver-haired chief defense lawyer for former Enron Corp. Chairman Kenneth L. Lay, took pity on a handful of quote-starved TV crews outside the federal courthouse here one afternoon this week.
Stepping up to a couple of cameras, Ramsey offered that the landmark fraud and conspiracy trial had become “as boring as a box of rocks.”
If so, Ramsey ought to shoulder some of the blame. It was he -- along with Daniel M. Petrocelli, codefendant Jeffrey K. Skilling’s lead lawyer -- who insisted on playing hours of audio- and videotapes in which Lay and Skilling, in palmier days, enthused to audiences of Wall Street analysts and Enron employees about the company’s world-beating prospects in the months before its collapse in December 2001.
Long trials have their rhythms, legal experts say. The Enron trial, after three weeks of what may be a four-month marathon, has hit a lull.
That may seem surprising for a case that is seen by many as the ultimate test of the federal government’s response to the wave of scandals that swamped corporate America in the early part of the decade. But the Lay-Skilling trial never had a chance of matching the buzz of the Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson or Martha Stewart spectacles.
First, there is the lack of compelling visuals: so far, no dancing on a limousine, no ill-fitting glove, no secretary weeping on the witness stand as she nails her beloved former boss between the eyes. The early testimony has been mostly low-key and technical, focusing on such things as financial terminology and corporate profit targets.
But mainly, there just isn’t enough raw celebrity wattage. Skilling, Enron’s 52-year-old former chief executive, says he can walk into Houston restaurants unrecognized. The courtroom is seldom more than three-quarters full. And the throng of TV reporters, producers and camera operators that crammed the sidewalk outside the courthouse on the trial’s opening day has dwindled to barely enough for a card game.
“People don’t want to come sit on those hard benches and hear hours of nothing,” said Jim Parkman, the Birmingham, Ala., lawyer who last year successfully defended former HealthSouth Corp. Chief Executive Richard M. Scrushy against federal fraud charges.
The energy level should pick up when the government’s star witness, former Enron Chief Financial Officer Andrew S. Fastow, testifies, probably this month. The architect of some of Enron’s controversial off-the-books partnerships, Fastow pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges under a cooperation deal with prosecutors and is expected to implicate his former bosses in Enron’s downfall, which destroyed thousands of jobs and wiped out billions in stock market value and retirement savings.
There will be even more excitement if, as they have promised, Lay and Skilling take the witness stand in their own defense.
Despite the lack of fireworks so far, jurors generally have been paying close attention, many of them taking notes on yellow legal pads during the tedious afternoons of tape playing.
Perhaps for their own amusement, perhaps to toy with the jury consultants and news reporters who are trying to interpret their every move, the jurors came to court on Valentine’s Day in coordinated outfits. Eight of the 10 women on the panel of 12 jurors and four alternates wore some shade of red, including three in scarlet suits. Three of the six men sported red ties.
Linda Lay, who has watched every day of her husband’s trial from the front row, apparently got the memo: She wore a scarlet jacket and laughed about it during a recess.
Aside from the defendants’ friends and family members, reporters from big-city newspapers and national wire services, federal law-enforcement agents, court security officers and legal consultants, there often are few people watching the proceedings.
One such “civilian” was Charity L. Wilcox, a Houstonian who dropped in one morning this week after completing other business in the courthouse and realizing that the Enron trial was in progress on the ninth floor. She said she knew of Lay’s reputation as a philanthropist but hadn’t formed an opinion on the case.
“It’s my first time at a live court proceeding,” said Wilcox, who is studying to be a paralegal and hoped her attendance might win her some extra credit from her civil law professor. “It’s different from the classroom and reading books,” she said.
The Houston Chronicle, which is on the Enron story like sauce, saw traffic on its Internet site rise 10% when the trial started and has posted slight gains since then, editor Jeff Cohen said.
“It may be kind of the trial du jour in a lot of parts of the country,” he said, “but not in Houston.”
Cohen said the lack of crowds in the courtroom might have to do with people not wanting to fight traffic and hunt for downtown parking spots.
Besides, the eyes of Texas are upon things other than the Enron trial. The National Basketball Assn.'s 55th annual All-Star Game, with all its attendant hoopla, is coming to Houston’s Toyota Center this weekend. Banners adorn nearly every downtown intersection.
The annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, touted by sponsors as “Houston’s version of Mardi Gras, the Super Bowl and the running of the bulls in Spain, all in one,” also is coming. Country music stars George Strait, Trisha Yearwood and comedian Larry the Cable Guy are among the headliners.
Weldon Renfro doesn’t care to fight crowds or even walk the seven blocks to the courthouse from his shoeshine stand at the Duke of Hollywood tailor shop and bar (slogan: “Suits. Shines. Spirits.”). He’s far more interested in the NBA All-Star Game than the trial, though there was a time when Enron mattered.
“I took a cut in pay because of Enron,” said Renfro, 54, explaining that the bankruptcy filing shut off the flow of big-tipping “millionaires” to his stand. “I lost $300 a week, easy,” he said.
University of Texas visiting law professor Samuel W. Buell is “blogging” the trial for the Chronicle, providing commentary on the newspaper’s website, and keeping as close track as possible from Austin. Buell has a dog in the hunt: He’s a former member of the Department of Justice’s Enron Task Force, which built the case against Lay and Skilling.
“Long trials can take on the quality of a hostage crisis,” Buell said. “Everybody is in it together, though you’re fighting each other all the way. You’ve got to find a way to get along.”
Ramsey appears to be struggling for a way to get along with U.S. District Judge Sim Lake, a witty but no-nonsense Army veteran. In a trial that has been short on drama, the two Texans’ sometimes contentious relationship is a promising subplot. Lake, 61, has seldom shown irritation with other lawyers, but Ramsey, who turns 66 today, seems to push his buttons.
Though grandfatherly in appearance, Ramsey has the wiles of a veteran legal fighter.
In the weeks before Enron’s bankruptcy filing, with TV crews camped outside the company’s curved glass skyscraper, Lay needed to meet regularly with Ramsey but didn’t want the world to know he had hired one of Houston’s top criminal lawyers. Ramsey’s solution was to show up incognito in jeans and a hard hat, toting a lunch bucket instead of an attache case.
At trial, Ramsey repeatedly has pushed cross-examination of witnesses into areas the judge has excluded and has pressed procedural objections to the point where Lake once testily ordered him to “have a seat.”
Such clashes aside, the trial has largely involved the microscopic examination of incidents in 2000 and 2001, when Lay or Skilling allegedly made misleading statements about Enron’s financial health.
Legal experts have speculated that the defense team’s drawn-out cross examinations and tedious tape-playing may be part of a deliberate strategy to bog down the government’s case.
If the public’s interest is flagging amid the minutiae, Buell said, it may be because people had been expecting “some sort of grand up-or-down verdict on corporate behavior in general.”