HOUSTON, (AP) -Expressing no emotion, ex-Enron Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Skilling watched former employees and investors of what was once the nation’s seventh-largest company get up, one by one, at his sentencing and call him everything from greedy, to a liar, to a drunk.
“You should send him to the rest of his life in prison,” former Enron employee Anne Beliveaux told U.S. District Judge Sim Lake after saying that Skilling’s actions, which helped bring down the company, were the result of “greed, nothing but greed.”
Lake did not send Skilling away for life but he did impose a tough sentence Monday: 24 years and four months in prison. It is the harshest punishment by far in Enron’s scandalous collapse and one that capped a string of tough sentences for top executives in corruption cases.
“His crimes have imposed on hundreds, if not thousands, of people a life sentence of poverty,” Lake said.
Lake approved a request from Skilling that he not immediately be detained but instead be taken into custody sometime during the next 30 to 45 days. Lake suggested the 52-year-old be sent to the federal facility in Butner, N.C., for his role in a case that came to symbolize corporate fraud in America. The final decision on where he will be incarcerated is left to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Lake did deny Skilling’s request for bond while his appeals are processed and ordered him to home confinement, wearing an ankle monitor, until he reports to prison.
The former chief executive officer will be eligible to shave up to 54 days a year off his sentence for good behavior in prison. Lake also ordered Skilling to undergo alcohol and mental-health counseling. A successful completion of that treatment would take a year off his sentence.
Outside the courthouse, Skilling vowed to appeal his sentence and continued to proclaim his innocence. “I’ll be vindicated,” he said.
“I feel terrible about what happened,” Skilling said of Enron’s collapse into bankruptcy proceedings in December 2001. “That’s not to say I did something wrong.”
Former employee Diana Peters called the sentence “just” but added, “I am extremely disappointed he wasn’t taken into custody today.”
In an agreement that was also announced Monday, Skilling’s remaining assets of about $60 million, including a $5 million mansion in Houston and nearly $50 million in stocks and bonds, will be liquidated.
About $45 million will be put in a restitution fund for victims. The remaining $15 million will go to Skilling’s legal fees. He still owed his lawyers $30 million as of Monday.
His attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, said the restitution will be held until all of Skilling’s appeals are exhausted.
Skilling, insisting he was innocent yet remorseful in a two-hour hearing, was the last top former official to be punished for the accounting tricks and shady business deals that led to the loss of thousands of jobs, more than $60 billion in Enron stock and more than $2 billion in employee pension plans.
During his sentencing, Skilling sat with his hands clasped below his waist and looked directly and with no visible reaction as victims unleashed nearly five years of anger.
“Mr. Skilling has proven to be a liar, a thief and a drunk, flaunting an attitude above the law,” said 22-year Enron employee Dawn Powers Martin. “He has betrayed everyone who has trusted him.”
Two chose not to vilify Skilling, however.
Sherri Sera, a former administrative assistant to Skilling, said he was “unfairly demonized and ridiculed” by lawmakers, the public and the media. She said she too had lost thousands in Enron stock and benefits but took blame for her own failure to diversify.
Prosecutor Sean Berkowitz told Lake that Skilling has never tried to take any personal responsibility for what happened at Enron.
“There are hundreds of people like those here whose futures have been inalterably changed by the conduct of Mr. Skilling and others,” he said.
Petrocelli, who had asked for a sentence of seven to 10 years for his client, said Skilling did not act deliberately or intentionally to harm victims of Enron’s collapse.
“I reject the idea that because this is the Enron case” he ought to be punished severely, he said. “He is not a sacrificial man.”
Skilling’s co-defendant, Enron founder Kenneth Lay, died from heart disease on July 5. Lay’s convictions on 10 counts of fraud, conspiracy and lying to banks in two separate cases were wiped out with his death. Former Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow, who had agreed to serve 10 years, was given a six-year term after cooperating with prosecutors and helping them secure Skilling’s conviction.
Robert Mintz, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s criminal division, said Skilling could not escape a tough sentence.
“There was this expectation at some point the guillotine was going to drop in the Enron case,” he said. “And with Ken Lay’s death and with Andrew Fastow choosing to cooperate and getting only six years, he found himself in the crosshairs.”
Skilling’s sentence falls just shy of the sentence imposed on WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers, who received 25 years for his role in the $11 billion accounting fraud that toppled the company he built from a tiny telecommunications firm to an industry giant. Another CEO, Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco International Ltd., received a sentence of eight and one-third to 25 years in prison in another fraud case.
With family and friends looking on, including his second wife and former Enron corporate secretary Rebecca Carter, Skilling on Monday also disputed reports he had no remorse for his role in the fraud that drove the company to seek bankruptcy protection.
“I can tell you that’s just the furthest thing from the truth,” he said.
Skilling was convicted in May on 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors. He was acquitted on nine counts of insider trading.
On Monday, Lake set investor loss tied to his actions at $80 million, which he relied on to set the sentence. With that figure, Skilling faced up to 30 years and five months in prison.
Jurors decided Skilling and Lay repeatedly lied about Enron’s financial health when they knew of accounting maneuvers that hid debt and inflated profits.
Enron’s crash and the subsequent scandals roiled Wall Street and prompted stiffened white collar penalties and upped regulatory scrutiny over publicly traded companies.
Skilling has insisted no fraud occurred at Enron other than that committed by a few executives skimming millions in secret side deals, and that bad press and poor market confidence combined to sink the company.
Skilling, who was born in Pittsburgh and raised in New Jersey and suburban Chicago, spent 11 years at Enron. He has three children — aged 22, 20 and 16 — from his first marriage. He and Carter have no children.
He took over as chief executive from Lay in February 2001 but abruptly quit six months later, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. Prosecutors said he left Enron because he knew the company was on the brink of bankruptcy.