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April 1, 2008

The Wall Street Journal's Enron embarrassment

Emshwiller033108 In anticipation of the oral argument on Wednesday in New Orleans on former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling's appeal of his criminal conviction, don't miss this Larry Ribstein post on Wall Street Journal Enron reporter John Emshwiller's tardy realization that Skilling may just have legitimate grounds for reversal of his conviction and that the Enron Task Force's record is not what its sycophants crack it up to be. This comes from Emshwiller after his newspaper last year characterized the Enron Task Force as having "a good record overall."

I can't improve upon Professor Ribstein's post regarding the irony of the nation's leading business newspaper just now realizing that the corporate criminal case of the decade was badly mishandled. However, even before the Lay-Skilling trial, it was clear that the WSJ's coverage of Enron was open to serious questions (see also here). That the newspaper continues to soft pedal coverage of wide-ranging evidence of serious prosecutorial misconduct in the Enron-related criminal cases reflects a troubling blind spot. Even in the current article, Emshwiller is less than forthright in assessing what is truly going on in the Skilling appeal regarding the Fastow interview notes:

Normally, defense attorneys aren't allowed to see the raw notes of Federal Bureau of Investigation interviews with government witnesses. But Mr. Skilling's defense team, led by Daniel Petrocelli, sought them anyway, and the Fifth Circuit agreed to order the federal government to turn over the notes.

Emshwiller fails to explain that the Fifth Circuit granted the Skilling team's motion to obtain the raw notes because the Enron Task Force took the highly unusual step of providing the Lay-Skilling defense team a "composite summary" of the Form 302 ("302s") interview reports that federal agents prepared in connection with their interviews of former Enron CFO and chief Skilling accuser, Andrew Fastow. Those composites claimed that the Fastow interviews provided no exculpatory information for the Lay-Skilling defense, even though Fastow's later testimony at trial indicated all sorts of inconsistencies.

In point of fact, the process of taking all the Fastow interview notes or draft 302s and creating a composite is offensive in that it allowed the prosecution to mask inconsistencies and changing stories that Fastow told investigators as he negotiated a better plea deal from the prosecutors over time. Likewise, the Task Force's apparent destruction of all drafts of the individual 302s of the Fastow interviews in connection with preparing the final composite is equally troubling. Traditionally, federal agents maintain their rough notes and destroy draft 302s. However, in regard to the Fastow interviews, what turned out to be the draft 302s were probably not "drafts" in the traditional sense. They were probably finished 302s that were deemed “drafts” when the Task Force prosecutors decided to prepare their highly unusual composite summary of the 302s.

Meanwhile, while manipulating Fastow's story, Task Force prosecutors were also preventing other exculpatory evidence from being introduced at trial on behalf of Skilling and Lay by taking the unprecedented step of fingering over 100 unindicted co-conspirators in the Lay-Skilling case (see also here) and implicitly threatening those co-conspirators with indictment if they testified on behalf of Skilling and Lay at trial. 

None of the foregoing is explained in Emshwiller's article. Regardless of what happens in the Skilling appeal, the WSJ has some deep soul-searching to do regarding its coverage of the aftermath of Enron's demise. Engaging in media myths and morality plays regarding business interests is bad enough. Ignoring the abuse of the government's overwhelming prosecutorial power to levy a life sentence on an executive who created enormous wealth elevates poor judgment in business reporting to a much more troubling level. 

Update: Larry Ribstein comments further here, while Ellen Podgor has a pre-appellete argument post for the Skilling appeal here. The Chronicle's Kristen Hays, who has done the best job in the mainstream media of covering the latest developments in the Skilling appeal, previews the oral argument here.

Posted by Tom at April 1, 2008 12:01 AM |

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