This new Motley Fool series examines things that just aren't right in the world of finance and investing. Here's what's got us riled today. If something's bugging you, too -- and we suspect it is -- go ahead and unload in the comments section below.
Today's subject: Hey, look who's back! It's the former president of Enron, convicted criminal Jeffrey Skilling.
Blamed as one of the architects of the epic collapse of Enron, at its peak the seventh-largest company in the U.S., Jeffrey Skilling was convicted on charges of fraud, conspiracy, and insider trading and forced to serve 292 months, a little over 24 years, in federal prison.
Unwilling to go quietly into the night (or a small, confined space), Skilling appealed his conviction to the 5th Circuit Court, which upheld all 19 counts, but did knock off some time. However, he wasn't done yet.
Why you should be indignant: Skilling is taking his appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Why does Skilling insist on wasting our time and tax dollars? These are the two key reasons for his appeal:
- No "Honest Service" Fraud
- Biased Houston Jury
The honest service fraud is the central issue for the Supreme Court, as it will be reviewing at least two other cases dealing with the same statute. Essentially, if someone commits honest service fraud, then they deny the "intangible right to honest services" to their company/client. It is a favorite tool of federal prosecutors when going after white-collar criminals and government officials. The law is definitely vague, but I have no problem with making sure that we have the ability to police and enforce punishment on those who abuse their positions of authority. And in case anyone is confused, artificially keeping share prices high while using off-balance sheet transactions to manipulate earnings is not giving honest services to the shareholders and stakeholders.
Biased Houston jury? Maybe, but maybe Skilling shouldn't have bankrupted one of the city's largest employers, rocking Houston into a mental recession (if not an actual one).
In case you're having a hard time generating enough outrage toward Mr. Skilling, a quick jog down memory lane should get your blood boiling.
Hired in 1990, Skilling transformed Enron from a tangible asset pipeline company into an intangible asset trading firm, which before its downfall even tried (unsuccessfully) to trade the weather. He derided more traditional energy companies like ExxonMobil
It's also important to remember that Skilling brought "innovation" to Enron with the use of mark-to-market accounting. The technique allowed Enron to book future profits for positions it held currently, no matter if the positions were unprofitable. It allowed Enron to grow revenue at an average rate of 57% from 1996-2000, 16% greater than Cisco's
Skilling had a brief tenure as CEO starting in February 2001, but quit in August and sold a large portion of his Enron stock in September, just months before the business declared bankruptcy. He claimed that he had no idea that the company was in trouble and he was simply leaving because he wanted to master dirt-bike riding. No joke. The end result of his leadership at the company:
- $60 billion lost in stock value
- $2 billion wiped out of employee pension plans
- Thousands of unemployed coworkers
And during his time with the company, Jeffrey Skilling made over $180 million, according to prosecutors. Angry yet?
Yes, his sentence is quadruple that of fellow Enron criminal Andrew Fastow, but keep in mind that Fastow cut a deal and cooperated with federal authorities. Going to trial is not without risk, and as Skilling found out, the defendant might not like the results. Based on the staggering amount of wealth destroyed, his sentence could have been up to 365 months. Even if the sentence is effectively for life for the 52-year-old Skilling, one justice hearing the case noted that Skilling had imprisoned victims to "a life sentence of poverty."
Ultimately, it looks like Jeffrey Skilling is taking a page out of former Enron CEO Ken Lay's playbook and making good on his 2006 promise to fight the charges until the day he dies. While our legal system does give the right to an appeal, I wish he would stop trying to clarify fuzzy legal precedents in the hope that he can get his conviction overturned on a technicality. Go away, serve your time, and think about all of the employees you betrayed and the lives you damaged.
Although it is clear where I stand on Skilling and his appeal, where does the Foolish community stand? Feel free to drop me an email, or even better, leave a comment below.