This decision by the Supreme Court may be a surprise to anyone who reads the regular media, which long ago fricasseed Skilling. But Houston attorney Tom Kirkendall has been covering the Enron-related cases for years, and has reported on any number of prosecutorial abuses. As he writes:
On the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision earlier this year to hear Conrad Black's appeal of his criminal conviction on honest services wire-fraud charges under 18 U.S.C. § 1346 ("Section 1346), the Court yesterday granted former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling's appeal on similar grounds. A copy of the Skilling's cert petition and its appendix, which are bookmarked in Adobe Acrobat to facilitate ease of review, can be downloaded here.
My sense is that Skilling has a good chance of having the Supreme Court overturn his conviction. Here's why.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal's decision in Skilling's appeal... is looking by the minute similar to the Fifth Circuit's decision in the Arthur Andersen case that was overturned by a unanimous Supreme Court
This is the ironic gist of the appeal in layman's terms:
Honest services wire-fraud under Section 1346 was intended by Congress to penalize corporate executives and governmental officials for accepting bribes and kickbacks and for engaging in self-dealing at the expense of the employer-- i.e., the private gain requirement of the crime.
The Task Force faced a big problem with prosecuting Skilling at all because he never stole a dime from Enron (that is, no private gain). In fact, the Task Force conceded at trial that, not only did Skilling not embezzle any money from Enron, the case against him was not about "greed," that Skilling always sought to pursue Enron's "best interests," and that every act for which he was being prosecuted was undertaken for the purpose of protecting Enron and promoting its share price.
Despite the foregoing, the Task Force persuaded U.S. District Judge Sim Lake to allow the prosecution to proceed against Skilling on a much broader honest services theory -- that is, that Skilling simply took on too much risk for the long-term good of Enron and improperly touted the company to the markets.
However, all corporate executives take business risks and promote their companies, so a rule that criminalizes any business decision that seems imprudent to prosecutors or lay jurors operating with hindsight bias -- even if if the executive was pursuing the interest of the company -- would force corporate executives to proceed at peril of criminal liability in making day-to-day business judgments. Indeed, in a civil case, Skilling would have had the protection of the "business judgment rule" for his business decisions, but the Enron Task Force's theory of honest services in Skilling's case provided for no such defense. Instead, the Task Force lawyers urged the jury to send Skilling to prison effectively for life simply because he breached his duty to do his job and do it appropriately.
Meanwhile, Skilling may also get a new trial from the 5th Appeals court based on charges of prosecutorial abuse:
In that regard, the Fifth Circuit decision invited Skilling to file a motion for new trial based on issues of prosecutorial misconduct that Skilling raised in the appeal after discovering the evidence post-trial. Specifically, the Fifth Circuit was particularly concerned about the failure of the Enron Task Force to comply with federal rules requiring the disclosure of exculpatory evidence to the defense from the Task Force's pre-trial interviews with main Skilling accuser, former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow.