Posts tagged ‘skilling’

Double Standard

Jeff Skilling of Enron essentially sits in jail for being too publicly optimistic about his company's prospects in the face of a liquidity crisis  (despite popular perceptions, he was not convicted for accounting issues associated with off balance sheet entities).

I didn't follow the trial that closely, but my sense is that Skilling denied this charge.  But even if he had admitted it, it strikes me that he would have had an interesting case in his favor.  US securities law takes as an absolute core principle that relevant information must always be disclosed quickly and completely to both shareholders and potential shareholders alike.  It presumes that total openness is the best way to serve shareholders.

But in a short-term liquidity crisis, openness is the kiss of death.  As we have seen over the last 6 months, the merest hint that a liquidity crisis may exist at a company creates a real crisis, even if one did not exist before.  Liquidity crises are crises of confidence among short-term lenders, and the only way to fight such a crisis is to build confidence.  So what happens if the best way to serve shareholders is to keep silent about problems?  What if the best way to fulfill one's fiduciary responsibility to maintaining shareholder value is to be overly rosy in one's pronouncements during difficult times?

Fast forward to the Bear Stearn failure last year, from the Economist:

As recently as March 12th, Alan Schwartz, the chief executive of Bear Stearns, issued a statement responding to rumours that it was in trouble, saying that "we don't see any pressure on our liquidity, let alone a liquidity crisis." Two days later, only an emergency credit line arranged by the Federal Reserve was keeping the investment bank alive. (Meanwhile, as its share price tumbled on rumours of trouble on March 17th, Lehman Brothers issued a statement confirming that its "liquidity is very strong.")

And now, we hear that the Federal Government urged Bank of America's Kenneth Lewis to do exactly what Lay and Skilling were convicted of.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and then-Treasury Department chief Henry Paulson pressured Bank of America Corp. to not discuss its increasingly troubled plan to buy Merrill Lynch & Co. -- a deal that later triggered a government bailout of BofA -- according to testimony by Kenneth Lewis, the bank's chief executive.

Mr. Lewis, testifying under oath before New York's attorney general in February, told prosecutors that he believed Messrs. Paulson and Bernanke were instructing him to keep silent about deepening financial difficulties at Merrill, the struggling brokerage giant. As part of his testimony, a transcript of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lewis said the government wanted him to keep quiet while the two sides negotiated government funding to help BofA absorb Merrill and its huge losses.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and then-Treasury Department chief Henry Paulson pressured Bank of America Corp. to not discuss its increasingly troubled plan to buy Merrill Lynch & Co. -- a deal that later triggered a government bailout of BofA -- according to testimony by Kenneth Lewis, the bank's chief executive.

Mr. Lewis, testifying under oath before New York's attorney general in February, told prosecutors that he believed Messrs. Paulson and Bernanke were instructing him to keep silent about deepening financial difficulties at Merrill, the struggling brokerage giant. As part of his testimony, a transcript of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lewis said the government wanted him to keep quiet while the two sides negotiated government funding to help BofA absorb Merrill and its huge losses.

Many observers found it odd when Skilling was convicted of giving false information to shareholders but not for insider trading.  The implication, then, was that Skilling was guilty of lying to shareholders but not for personal gain.  Why then, people asked, did he do it?  It is becoming increasingly clear that putting on a happy face during an impending liquidity crisis is the only responsible approach for a leader to take.  Whether he goes to jail for it or gets rewarded by the Feds for it comes down to, what?  PR?

Update: In fact, one can argue that the Enron situation is more honorable than the BofA situation.  Enron management was trying to protect the value of Enron shareholders.  In the case of BofA, the feds demanded that BofA management hide information in order to complete a transaction that BofA shareholders might rightly oppose.

We Don't Need To Turn Over No Stinking Evidence

A few days ago, I pointed to a Tom Kirkendall post where he reported that a large volume of evidence, including interview notes with star witness and Enron CFO Andy Fastow, was finally turned over to the Skilling defense team.  This is required by law to occur before the, you know, trial itself but in fact comes months and years after the trial.  Apparently, there are a lot of bombshells in the notes, including this one as described by Skilling's attorneys in a brief linked by Kirkendall: (citations omitted)

Task Force prosecutors called the "Global Galactic"  document "three pages of lies" and the "most incriminating document" in  Skilling's entire case. At trial, Fastow testified Skilling  knew about Global Galactic because Fastow "confirmed" it with him during a  spring 2001 meeting. Skilling denied knowing anything about Global Galactic.  To bolster Fastow's testimony and impeach Skilling's, the Task Force introduced a set of handwritten "talking points" that Fastow said he prepared in anticipation of his meeting with Skilling. At trial, Fastow swore he "went over" the talking points with Skilling, including the crucial point "Confirmation of Global Galactic list." Id. In closing, the Task Force relied heavily on this document to corroborate Fastow's testimony that he discussed Global Galactic with Skilling.

The raw notes of Fastow's interviews directly impeach Fastow's testimony and the Task Force's closing arguments. When shown and asked about the talking-points document in his pre-trial interview, Fastow told the Task Force he "doesn't think [he] discussed list w/ JS."

This obviously exculpatory statement was not included in the Task Force's "composite" Fastow 302s given to Skilling. Nor was it included in the "Fastow Binders" the Task Force assembled for the district court's in camera review of the raw notes. It is not possible that this omission was inadvertent. Fastow's statement is one of the most important pieces of evidence provided during all his countless hours of interviews. Moreover, in preparing both the composite 302s and Fastow binders, the Task Force extracted and included other"”relatively inconsequential"”statements from the same interview date and even the same page of notes. The Task Force's exclusion of this critical piece of evidence for over three years is inexcusable and, on its own, warrants a complete reversal of Skilling's convictions and other substantial relief.

Disclosure: I actually worked with Jeff Skilling briefly at McKinsey & Co.  From that experience, I have always thought it unlikely that this incredibly detail-oriented guy did not know about a number of these key Enron partnerships.  However, that presumption on my part in no way reduces my desire to see him get a fair trial, and I am becoming convinced that he did not.

Enron, Week 5

Tom Kirkendall has another excellent roundup of the Lay/Skilling trial.  According to Kirkendall, the prosecution is having some trouble, and in fact have wandered pretty far afield from their original indictment (a document that the prosecution now actually has disowned).  In effect, Lay and Skilling seem to be being tried for different things than they were ostensibly brought to trial for.  Most interesting is this:

On the other hand, the Task Force's case to date has wandered away from
the SPE's, so there is a decent chance that a difficult-to-control
Fastow could end up being a not-so-important witness in the
ever-changing big scheme of this corporate criminal case of the decade.

If Kirkendall is reading the trial correctly, and the SPE's and Fastow's testimony are becoming irrelevant, then the trial has virtually nothing to do with anything we have heard about in the media about Enron.

Barrionuevo and Eichenwald, who have been following the trial for the NY Times, agrees that the government case is shifting but believe it is due to the strength of what has been presented so far.

A steady drumbeat of damaging testimony in the five-week-old criminal trial against the former chief executives, Jeffrey K. Skilling and Kenneth L. Lay,
has led legal experts to praise the government case presented so far.
That has raised questions about the risks prosecutors would run by
putting Mr. Fastow, the former chief financial officer, on the stand as
early as Tuesday.

I haven't followed the testimony in any depth, so I can't choose from these two point of views, except to say that the government tactics of essentially changing the charges mid-trial and suppressing defense witnesses by naming a record number as unindicted co-conspirators may or may not be effective, but strike me as fairly scary abuses of the justice system.