HOUSTON – Enron Corp. founder Kenneth Lay and former CEO Jeffrey Skilling say potential jurors' answers to questionnaires in their fraud and conspiracy case are so vitriolic the men can't get a fair trial in Houston.
Prospective jurors called Skilling a "high-class crook," who "would lie to his mother if it would further his cause." He "projects a high sleaze factor," he's a "thief," and "cheater," according to a filing Wednesday in which his lead attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, asked again to move the trial to another city.
The filing noted some of the potential jurors called Lay "the biggest lying crook of all," a "career Enron leader who conveniently looked the other way as his lieutenants bent and broke laws in pursuit of profits and ever greater stock prices" and "did a lot of injustice to a lot of good people."
"These are not the hasty responses of random people who participated in a test survey. These are actual responses from actual prospective jurors in this case who took time to carefully and thoughtfully write out their answers," Petrocelli said in the filing.
Prosecutors have yet to respond to the latest request to move the trial, and U.S. District Judge Sim Lake gave no indication of how he would rule. A year ago, Lake rejected the defense teams' first request to move the trial to Denver, Phoenix or Atlanta, noting that extensive pretrial publicity wasn't so inflammatory or pervasive that it would prevent a fair trial.
Lay's lead lawyer, Michael Ramsey, told the judge at a hearing Wednesday that 80 percent of the 280 questionnaires the defense teams have seen show "negative, heated, emotional answers" about the defendants and "some of those people are going to end up on the jury."
That pool has already been whittled to 175 prospective jurors from the 400 throughout the 13-county Houston area who originally received questionnaires last November.
"We believe that well over three-fourths of the prospective jurors should be stricken based on their questionnaires alone," the filing said.
Lay and Skilling face trial Jan. 30 on charges including fraud and conspiracy for allegedly scheming to mislead investors about Enron's financial health before the company filed for bankruptcy in December 2001 after revelations of hidden debt and inflated profits.
Skilling faces 35 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors. Lay faces seven counts of fraud and conspiracy. Both have pleaded not guilty.
The defense also wants to postpone the trial until the end of February and start over with new questionnaires in light of last week's guilty plea from former Enron chief accounting officer Richard Causey, who had been slated to go to trial Jan. 17 alongside his former bosses. The trial was already delayed two weeks after Causey's plea to allow the defense teams to regroup.
Causey pleaded guilty to securities fraud, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and became a potentially powerful witness. He was the 16th ex-Enron executive to plead guilty.
Wednesday's filing noted that Causey's sister was among the original 400 potential jurors to receive questionnaires.
Last week, Lake rejected Petrocelli's first request to send out new questionnaires. The judge said Causey's elimination as a defendant can be addressed when he questions the pool during jury selection, which is expected to wrap up in a day.
In Wednesday's filing, the defense teams reiterated their request to question potential jurors individually themselves, which Lake has already repeatedly rejected.
However, Lake allowed the defense teams on Wednesday to examine questionnaires from jurors the judge had excused, which he said include full-time college students and sole caregivers of young children. Petrocelli said they needed to examine those questionnaires to adequately gauge bias.
Also Wednesday, Lake denied a Skilling request to bar prosecutors from using testimony he gave the Securities and Exchange Commission about a Sept. 17, 2001, stock trade. Skilling is charged with 10 counts of insider trading, including the sale of 500,000 Enron shares for $15.5 million.
Prosecutors said in a filing Tuesday that Skilling told the SEC he ordered the trade in light of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but misled the SEC by omitting the fact that he tried to sell 200,000 shares on Sept. 6.
Skilling alleged in his earlier filing that SEC investigators told him that he wasn't a target and their inquiry sought facts when the agency was working with the Justice Department all along, so jurors shouldn't hear the SEC testimony.