Business executives everywhere can breath a sigh of relief this morning after the U.S. Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) yesterday struck down former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling’s convictions for so-called “honest services fraud”. While the SCOTUS decision temporarily leaves intact Skilling’s other convictions, they are now on life-support. Continue reading
Not Guilty! Congratulations to Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin on their acquittal, Tuesday, on securities fraud charges. Responding, in June 2008, to pontification by the SEC on the arrests of Cioffi and Tannin (see video flashback, below)…
Apart from the eventual finding of guilt or innocence, the more I consider the FBI’s and SEC’s conduct in the arrests, the more I see it as a political show calculated not to enforce the law, but rather to satisfy the blood lust of investors and borrowers who should themselves be spanked for thinking they should be entitled to high returns (or sub-prime mortgages) without running high risks.
Ultimately, the prosecution of this case — which seems based almost entirely on e-mail traffic — will harm the markets more than help them by discouraging (a) expressions of optimism when times are tough and (b) candid give and take within firms. These, together, are essential to the functioning of financial markets. What would we think of a bank president who runs around Wall Street yelling at the top of his lungs that his bank’s cash balance is only a fraction of what it owes depositors?
We can thank this kind of prosecutorial overkill for banks’ current reluctance to make meaningful loans and for the reluctance of market players of various stripes to do what market players are supposed to do: take risks and speak optimistically about the future.
Congratulations, as well, to the Manhattan jury that so ably sniffed out this sham prosecution. Just imagine the outcome had Jeff Skilling been granted a change of venue to Manhattan. We can only hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will follow suit and unravel the absurdity of so-called “honest services fraud” by exonerating Mr. Skilling.
When a prominent Houston attorney advocates exonerating a convicted Enron executive you have to believe — as I have long argued — that something is seriously wrong with the conviction. In his excellent post, The Reeling Prosecution in the Skilling Case, Houston Attorney Tom Kirkendall explains why the U.S. Supreme Court should (and likely will) let Jeff Skilling out of jail when it hears his case.
For those with short attention spans, the bottom line is that Jeff Skilling was convicted and sent to jail for 24 years (a sentence recently set aside by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in a weirdly self-contradictory opinion) because a Houston jury, poisoned by months of anti-Skilling and anti-Enron propaganda, decided that Skilling exercised bad business judgment as Enron’s CEO during the company’s death spiral. The jury’s theory, doubtless buttressed by years of education and experience running companies in the complex energy derivatives markets, was apparently that any business executive dumb enough or nice enough to try to rescue the jobs and retirement plans of thousands of employees from a perfect market storm had damn-well better save the company or get ready for the guillotine.
Skilling’s conviction and sentence are shocking. Compelling evidence of Skilling’s innocence (and the prosecution’s guilt) is provided by his 209-page Petition for Writ of Certiorari.
One prong of Skilling’s defense is that “honest services wire fraud,” codified at 8 U.S.C. § 1346, is chaotic nonsense that fosters politically-motivated witch hunts any time a big company’s stock plunges in value for whatever reason. Kirkendall notes: Continue reading
With Wall Street agog over the DOJ’s biggest insider-trading sting ever and fully seven years since the Enron scandal broke, Jeff Skilling is back in the news. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Skilling’s appeal of his convictions in the Enron case for so-called “honest services fraud” and insider trading. Needless to say, justice in these United States can take an excruciatingly long time to develop.
The Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in Skilling v. United States should be good news for Americans accused of white collar fraud in the current wave of anti-Wall Street hysteria. It is a sign that justice may at long last get its day in court, even in politically-charged cases like Skilling’s which grew out of the collapse of Enron. I have consistently argued — see Jeff Skilling Is Innocent — that Skilling’s convictions were themselves a fraud, riddled with prosecutorial misconduct and jury bias and founded on a specious legal theory, “honest services fraud,” that criminalizes optimism essential to economic growth.
Here, for the record, are the questions to be heard by the Supreme Court:
1. Whether the federal “honest services” fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1346, requires the government to prove that the defendant’s conduct was intended to achieve “private gain” rather than to advance the employer’s interests, and, if not, whether § 1346 is unconstitutionally vague.
2. When a presumption of jury prejudice arises because of the widespread community impact of the defendant’s alleged conduct and massive, inflammatory pretrial publicity, whether the government may rebut the presumption of prejudice, and, if so, whether the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that no juror was actually prejudiced.
Not every economic catastrophe is caused by a crime. Markets naturally move up and down in cycles. Prosecutors and politicians should have the courage to make this clear to investors who too often expect someone else to pay every time the market turns against them.
What do Enron and Bear Stearns have in common? If you’re a Bear Stearns exec, you’d better hope the answer is “not much.” At least you won’t have to litigate in Houston. New York’s a bigger, better melting pot when it comes to judges and juries. Prosecutors and governors? Don’t change the subject!
Today, a colleague wrote: “Do you think Skilling is innocent including of the insider trading charge?” Here’s my relatively off-the-cuff answer, understanding that a few months ago I did a presentation on the subject of “honest services fraud,” the legal theory on which Skilling was presumably sent to jail. For some accounting professionals and jilted investors — who want to believe that there’s only one true “net income” for any company in a given year and that someone must be at fault any time a stock “goes south” — this won’t go down easy. I feel confident, however, that fairness will eventually trump emotion. Continue reading