Yesterday was Sherron Watkins day at the criminal trial of former key Enron executives Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, and despite her self-portrayal as a paragon of virtue amidst a cauldron of corruption at Enron, Watkins came off in person as an insufferable know-it-all. Even when it’s not particularly in her interest to do so.
Everyone who follows the Enron saga knows Ms. Watkins. She is the former mid-level Enron executive who parleyed this mid-August 2001 warning memo to Mr. Lay into a lucrative talk show-pundit career of waxing eloquent on all things Enron.
She testified to fawning Congressional subcommittees, co-authored an Enron book, was one of the primary Enron employees interviewed during the Enron movie, and has made a tidy living over the past several years on the rubber-chicken circuit portraying herself as a whistleblower with special expertise on the subject of leadership. Wherever there is a light and a camera, Ms. Watkins is ready to pontificate about Enron.
The fact that Ms. Watkins was not a whistleblower (she never alerted anyone outside of Enron or Arthur Andersen about alleged accounting improprieties) and that her memo to Lay characterized Enron’s problems as primarily a public relations issue has gotten lost in the Enron milieu.
In fact, the specific LJM transactions that she criticized in her memo had been approved by accountants and attorneys inside and outside of Enron. At the time of her memo, Lay listened courteously to her concerns, ordered an investigation, protected her from Mr. Fastow’s threats to fire her for going around him to Lay, and ultimately ordered the unwinding of the Raptor financial vehicles that resulted in more than a $500 million charge to Enron’s earnings in the third quarter of 2001.
Nevertheless, Watkins insisted self-righteously yesterday that Lay committed fraud in connection with his handling of the matter, primarily because he did not follow each and every one of her recommendations to him.
Meanwhile, Watkins’ testimony was downright bizarre regarding her $47,000 in insider trades of Enron stock that she made after delivering her memo to Lay and prior to the company’s announcement of the charge to earnings. Despite having certified in a 2002 Enron employment agreement and sworn in Congressional testimony that she had not engaged in any illegal insider trading while at Enron, Watkins yesterday conceded on direct examination that the trades were not “proper” because “I had more information than the marketplace did.”
But then, on cross-examination, Lay lawyer Chip Lewis courteously attempted to defend Watkins from a charge of insider trading by pointing out that, at the time of the trades, it was still unclear whether there was anything wrong about the accounting for the Raptor financial vehicles and, thus, she was not trading on material, non-public information.
In the ensuing exchange, Watkins proceeded to dispute Lewis’ attempt to portray her trades as not illegal. Tip to Watkins — keep that defense attorney on your payroll.
Also, Watkins is not going to be getting any holiday greeting cards from Houston-based Vinson & Elkins, which was Enron’s primary outside counsel. After accusing V&E of engaging in criminal acts with regard to its handling of the Lay-ordered investigation of the matters raised in her memo, Watkins engaged in the following exchange with Lewis:
Q: Now, in talking about V&E, you would acknowledge with me that they’re one of our country’s most prominent legal institutions, wouldn’t you?
A: Not anymore.
Finally, U.S. District Judge Sim Lake — who has the patience of Job and administers the trial proceedings with a delightful combination of firmness and grace — probably had the best observation about Watkins’ testimony. After enduring Watkins’ continual refusal to respond directly to the question asked on cross-examination, Judge Lake finally turned in exasperation to her and observed:
“You’ve got to respond to [Mr. Lewis’] questions. We’ll be here through the weekend if this keeps up.”