This week, pale brown envelopes will appear in the mailboxes of 400 Texans, containing a juror questionnaire and marking the beginning of a race for control of the courtroom and public opinion in a trial that defines an era of corporate wrongdoing.
Inside each envelope is a document that could be key to the outcome of the fraud trial of former Enron Corp. leaders Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling, who will stand trial in January with former accounting chief Richard A. Causey on charges that they conspired to mislead the public about the financial health of Enron, once ranked as the country's seventh-biggest publicly traded company.
Enron's 2001 collapse was the first in a series of corporate disasters that resulted in record-breaking bankruptcies, pinstriped perp walks and lost investor confidence. It wreaked havoc in Houston and beyond, costing thousands of employees and investors their retirement savings. The Justice Department created a special prosecutorial task force to deal with the fallout after the entire Houston U.S. attorney's office removed itself from the investigation because so many of its lawyers had financial or family ties to the company.
How a Texas jury assesses the evidence against Enron's former leaders will determine its answers to key questions, including just how much executives are expected to know about their company's finances -- and whether the final chapter of an era of financial scandals will close with a bang or a whimper.
Jury selection is a key step for both sides as they try to bend the process in their favor. "Attitudes toward what jurors regard as corporate greed have an impact on the way they hear evidence," said George Washington University law professor and former prosecutor Stephen A. Saltzburg.
Defense lawyers already have gained one advantage by putting more than four years between the bankruptcy and the trial, scheduled to begin with jury selection Jan. 17. But public opinion suggests that the memory of corporate scandals has not faded. Almost half of respondents to a Pew Research Center poll last month said they felt unfavorably toward U.S. companies -- a 20-point rise from March 2001, nine months before Enron filed for bankruptcy protection.
What's significant about the four years that occurred between the bankruptcy and the trial? It happens to be the length of a presidential term, the same one that was bought with the generous assistance of Enron.
As Patrick Fitzgerald pointed out in presenting the initial results of his grand jury investigation, we could have been here a year sooner if we hadn't been stymied. Yesterday Harry Reid made the same argument with his closed session of the Senate to provoke the similarly stymied pre-war intelligence investigation. That too could have happened a year ago.
Everything that exposes the necrotic gangrene of this administration was timed to hit the air this year and not last year. Thanks for your vigilance, CBS, The New York Times, and the whole press corps!