Before the government froze about $66 million of his assets, former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling supplied his high-powered legal team with $23 million for his defense.
Combined with insurance money -- some from Enron and possibly a private policy -- that's enough money to pay his brigade of attorneys for months, perhaps years.
"Maybe his lawyers are just making sure that crime doesn't pay," joked Philip Hilder, a Houston lawyer and former federal prosecutor who represents several witnesses in the Enron cases. "I'm quite sure the entire Enron Task Force, from its inception two years ago, hasn't cost anywhere near that."
Skilling faces 35 felony counts of conspiracy to commit fraud, securities fraud, wire fraud, making false statements to auditors and insider trading. But he also has potential legal liability in about 100 conglomerated civil cases and has been sued by the Securities Exchange Commission and investigated by Congress and the bankruptcy examiner.
"Millions yes, but $23 million is hard to figure. It is stunning," said Gillian Hadfield, a Los Angeles-based University of Southern California law professor specializing in the economics of legal fees. She said the enormous fee shows Skilling is expecting a major battle -- and that the legal system will find a use for as many dollars as a participant is willing to contribute.
So what will Skilling's $23 million buy?
From the firm of O'Melveny & Myers, which has become so well known for litigation it gets plugs on HBO's The Sopranos, come four main lawyers on the trial team.
Leading is Daniel Petrocelli, a California lawyer who has done everything from winning the civil trial verdict against O.J. Simpson for the family of Fred Goldman to successfully representing Winnie the Pooh for Disney. No stranger to the spotlight, this would-be professional trumpet player doesn't blink at the idea of Skilling being his first criminal client.
"A trial is a trial. This is a business case and Jeff Skilling is no criminal," said Petrocelli.
He brings an intensity to the case shared easily by his colleague Bruce Hiler, the Washington, D.C.-based former Securities and Exchange Commission associate director of enforcement who helped prosecute Ivan Boesky and Charles Keating Jr. Hiler sat by Skilling in his congressional testimony and on Larry King Live. His zeal in claiming Skilling's innocence is palpable.
"You have to believe in your client," said Petrocelli. "Your conviction has to be so strong that you can will the verdict."
Also from the law firm is Randy Oppenheimer, a California lawyer with a general trial practice as varied as representing Carsey-Warner in a dispute with CBS over production costs of the television show Cybill, and successfully representing Exxon in a suit by Alaskan municipalities that tried to recoup cleanup costs from the Valdez spill.
Oppenheimer and Petrocelli worked together representing Unocal Corp. against accusations that it is liable for human rights violations committed by others in Myanmar because the company has a gas pipeline there. That landmark case is in midstream.
"I predict you will see, as we move forward, that there is a smoothness to how we work together," Oppenheimer said.
The two lead criminal lawyers on the team include California O'Melveny partner Mark Holscher, who prosecuted madam Heidi Fleiss and represented scientist Wen Ho Lee against charges he mishandled classified information.
Skilling also has Houston counsel Ron Woods, the former Houston U.S. attorney here and a former FBI agent. Woods defended Terry Nichols in the Oklahoma City bombing case.
Woods said the Oklahoma case was about one event but the Skilling case is so much bigger because it's about years of multiple complex financial transactions at Enron. "This case is so broad and could take so much lawyer time, $23 million could be eaten up before we even get to a verdict," Woods said.
The odd thing is that Martha Stewart may go to jail for lying about having made $200,000 in an insider trade... after she had already lost $300 million in the value of her company because the market was displeased with the scandal. She is doubly penalized. But she's a Democrat, and an independent, strong woman, both of which are out of vogue during the Bush-Cheney American Taliban regime. Meanwhile, her company chugs along without her, hurting but still viable. That's because, unlike Enron, it was a real business that didn't play three-card monte with broadband and Nigerian barges.
Skilling, on the other hand, managed to squirrel away $23 million exclusively for his lawyers before his self-made Enron house of cards came tumbling down, and before the government managed to freeze the rest of his assets (such quick thinking being a hallmark of CEOs and crooks alike). Nigerian barge co-conspirators Merrill Lynch and others are pretending none of it happened. Enron, the company, is now just a joke on life support, barely alive after the seedy machinations of Skilling and Ken Lay.
Martha leaves a viable company in her wake over a stupid but relatively small $200,000 error, and she might go to jail. Skilling got to steal the money (by leaving with his overcapitalized stock) and then crash the company, and still manages to use $23 million of that purloined cash to mount what may be the biggest defense in history. But he's had a fantastic advantage: nearly three years to destroy all the evidence.
And we will watch Skilling drive his $23 million Ford Bronco slowly, slowly, slowly... and the legal proceedings won't be pleasant, but he might just walk in the end. Because no matter how many thousands of employees he had to fuck over to get that way, he's very, very rich.
Jeff Skilling and O.J. Simpson... separated at birth?