The masters of the Enron universe -- Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling -- heard the voice of justice Thursday. After a four-year investigation and a four-month trial, a jury of eight women and four men found them guilty of conspiracy, fraud and insider trading in the collapse of Enron. The CEOs who once ruled an empire now face time in a prison cell.
Their defense -- at the cost of some $70 million with the finest lawyers in America -- was that Enron's collapse wasn't their fault. They professed ignorance at the accounting fraud and the misleading reporting. These hands-on executives claimed that they didn't know that multibillion-dollar deals were going bust. They claimed they didn't cash out their stocks secretly while misleading investors and their own employees. Enron's collapse was due to Sept. 11, a rapacious business press, skittish investors. They said: We didn't do anything different from modern business as usual.
In the latter claim, they were surely right. Cooking the books, puffing the stock, cashing out stock options while plundering companies has been routine in this era of corporate crime. Hundreds of Fortune 500 companies "restated their profits,'' erasing billions in fake profits. The Justice Department task force on corporate crime has bagged more than 1,000 convictions. It wasn't a few "bad apples," as the president suggested. It was a remarkably widespread crime wave in the executive suites.
These are not victimless crimes. I met with the Enron workers after the company collapsed. We took a delegation to Washington by bus to demand accountability. Many had put their trust in Lay and had lost their life savings. Only the few represented by a union had pensions that were protected from the collapse. The rest had individual retirement savings plans heavy with Enron stock -- and many were locked in to holding onto that stock while the company went belly up. Many had never thought much about a union until the AFL-CIO came to their defense.
That's what makes the Enron verdict so telling. The jurors were middle Americans -- an elementary school principal, a school teacher, a small-business woman, a human resources manager, a law file manager, two engineers, a payroll manager. They sat for 56 days in a trial of numbing complexity, featuring the best defense lawyers in America. And those lawyers were good. It didn't matter. This very American jury applied common sense and common decency to the actions of Lay and Skilling.
How could they say they didn't know, asked Freddy Delgado, an elementary school principal. Parents hold him responsible for the health and safety of their children. "I can't say that I don't know what my teachers were doing in the classroom. I am still responsible if a child gets lost. So I would say that to say that you didn't know what was going on in your own company, was not the right thing."
Not the right thing. Exactly. The jurors admired Lay's charitable contributions and his civic generosity. But they were outraged that Lay was selling his own stock while telling employees the company was in great shape. ''I thought that was a disgrace," said Donald Martin, an electrical designer.
Juror Carolyn Kuchera, a payroll manager, talked about responsibility. ''Those of us that have full-time jobs, we did our jobs at night when we went home so tired we hardly knew who we were. We were responsible, we were always accountable. . . . And I think those employees,'' she said about Enron workers, "were entitled to the same thing."
Lay and Skilling had the best defense money could buy. They had all the excuses, the rationalizations, the dodges that insulate the powerful from accountability. They had lawyers the jurors liked. But they had two big problems: They betrayed the trust their employees and investors put in them. And they offended the jurors' basic sense of decency, of responsibility.
These Americans get up every day, do their jobs and are responsible to their employers, their families and their communities. They may not have understood all the fancy corporate financial dealings. But they had a good sense of right and wrong. And they knew what was not the right thing. God bless them.
© 2006 The Chicago Sun-Times