Defense Expert: Enron Didn't Break Rules With Business Shifts

Enron Corp. did not break rules or regulations when it shifted part of one business unit to another in what prosecutors insist was a ploy to hide losses, an accounting expert testified Thursday.

"It happens all the time," Walter Rush, testifying for a second day at the fraud and conspiracy trial of former Enron Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling and Enron founder Kenneth Lay, said.

"Is there anything whatsoever, a rule, law, regulation you're aware of, to keep a company from doing it?" Skilling attorney Randy Oppenheimer asked.

"As long as it stayed within the same country," Rush replied. "As long as it was the same taxing jurisdiction, it's fine."

Rush has said Enron and its outside accounting firm, Arthur Andersen LLP, followed generally accepted accounting principles, known in the industry by the acronym GAAP.

Besides the reorganization to hide losses, the government contends top executives at the now-fallen energy giant improperly boosted earnings and wrongly tapped reserves to make or beat earnings targets.

"The disclosures were made totally appropriate according to the rules," Rush, an accountant for 41 years, testified Wednesday. "This is why they write the rules."

Rush, who spent nearly three decades at what now is the accounting firm Coopers and Lybrand before specializing as an expert witness since 1997, is among the final witnesses for Lay and Skilling.

U.S. District Judge Sim Lake said late Wednesday he wanted testimony and rebuttal witnesses finished no later than the end of next week.

Lake said he planned to read his charge to jurors and begin prosecution closing arguments May 15. Defense lawyers would get to make their final arguments over six hours the following day. Then prosecutors would get the remainder of their six hours on May 17. The case would then go to the jury.

If convicted of all 28 counts, Skilling faces a maximum of 275 years in prison and tens of millions of dollars in fines but an actual prison sentence would likely only be 20 years or more. Lay faces a maximum of 45 years in prison if convicted of the six counts against him.

Unlike Lay, Skilling faces insider trading charges, although Lay faces a separate trial on bank fraud charges unrelated to the current trial. The bank fraud case is supposed to be tried before Lake without a jury while the jury deliberates in the Lay-Skilling case.

Rush disputed testimony from several prosecution witnesses who linked Skilling to what they said were improper boosts to earnings and improper methods to get there.

Mark Koenig, former head of investor relations at Enron, testified early in the trial that he believed top Enron executives were so bent on meeting or beating earnings expectations to keep analysts bullish on the company's stock that they made or knew of overnight changes to estimates. And Paula Rieker, Koenig's former top lieutenant, said Koenig told her Skilling ordered abrupt last-minute changes to two quarterly earnings reports.

The change jumped earnings per share from 30 cents to 31 cents. Arthur Andersen already had the 31-cent number days earlier, Rush said.

"What I found was the normal closing process, nothing out of the ordinary," he said. "I went back to take a look and see if anything unusual was going on to manipulate the numbers, and the answer is no."

Rush challenged testimony from Wesley Colwell, former chief accounting officer for Enron's trading division, who said he improperly raided reserves to increase earnings when he understood Skilling and other superiors wanted better results.

"If the reserve is correctly stated and justified, then that's fine," Rush said.

"This doesn't have any impact on my decision whatsoever," he replied when confronted by Colwell's testimony.

And he said a reorganization that moved some of Enron's retail operation into its highly profitable wholesale business unit in 2001 was "properly disclosed and properly accounted for."