Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling gave the sales pitch of his life Monday in front of his judge and jury here in federal court in Houston. Facing scores of years in prison on conspiracy and corporate fraud charges, Skilling was articulate, compelling, composed and persuasive under friendly questioning by his own attorney. It's no wonder he was heralded for so long by so many in the corporate community as the best and brightest innovator and salesman of his generation.
But, ultimately, the start of his testimony on direct examination, under the gentle guidance of defense attorney Daniel Petrocelli, made you think of the famous line about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln: Aside from that, Ms. Lincoln, how was the play? Prosecutors no doubt stipulate to Skilling's former brilliance in the world of business. That's not in dispute; it's not what this trial is about. It's about whether the mastermind of so much success at Enron caused or allowed the biggest corporate failure in American history.
It is that dissonance — how Skilling's mastery eventually could result in such widespread destruction at and to Enron — that jurors will have to struggle with as the biggest white-collar criminal trial of its time lumbers into its third month. There is something inherently in conflict between the impressive appearance Skilling offered in court and the low charges against him. Will jurors look at the defendant now that he has performed for them and say, "So what? Look at what happened on the guy's watch?" Or will jurors look at him and say, "There is no way a guy that sharp, that loyal, and in such obvious command, ever would have allowed the company he essentially created to implode, fraud or no fraud."
After such a virtuoso performance, there may even be a juror or two who drinks the defense's Kool-Aid in a single gulp and who may now believe, as Skilling says he does, that Enron was fiscally sound just before it died and that the government is trying to criminalize just plain bad luck. Of all the chords struck Monday in court that one surely rang the harshest. Skilling's company was infested with greedy managers, festooned with sharpies and frauds, littered with feckless accountants and lawyers and egged on by sycophantic financial advisers — a company literally rotting from the inside. And Skilling sat there under oath and calmly told jurors that he was shocked when the walls came tumbling down.
At times Monday, the Enron trial seemed like a business school classroom with Skilling as the guest lecturer. When Petrocelli asked Skilling to educate jurors about his pre-Enron career, or about the history of Enron, Skilling would turn, expert-witness-like, to face jurors before offering his answer. He oozed charm, earnestness, and the ability to explain complex corporate terms, and if you forgot for a moment the financial catastrophe that Sklling oversaw, you could easily see how the defendant could have made so many deals and so much money riding the Enron wave to its crest.
At times Monday, the Enron trial seemed like a giant therapy session. There was Skilling, the ruthless corporate executive, using the language of victimization to describe the impact that the collapse of Enron had on his own life. As the company teetered, he told jurors "all I was doing at that time was going to pieces." He told the panel that he started drinking, and became depressed, and "did not really recover" for quite some time afterward. When he saw television images of Enron employees packing their boxes and leaving the building, Skilling told jurors, he "felt awful … it was very painful… You wanted to die."