Published January 14, 2015
Former Enron Corp. (search) chief executive Jeffrey Skilling (search) wants to face a jury in Phoenix, Atlanta or Denver because too many potential jurors in the Houston area associate his name with words like "pig," "snake" and "evil," according to a court filing.
Such visceral reactions merit moving the as-yet unscheduled trial of Skilling, Enron founder Kenneth Lay (search) and former top Enron accountant Richard Causey to cities that didn't absorb the emotional and economic impact of Enron's 2001 collapse, Skilling's lead trial lawyer, Daniel Petrocelli, wrote in a 75-page change of venue request filed Monday.
Skilling and Causey face more than 30 charges each including fraud, conspiracy and insider trading that allege they were in on various schemes to make investors believe Enron was healthy so they could pocket millions from sales of inflated stock.
Lay faces seven counts of fraud and conspiracy in a narrower case alleging he took over the financial ruse when Skilling abruptly resigned in August 2001. Lay also is charged in a separate case with four counts of bank fraud and lying to banks.
All three have pleaded not guilty.
Michael Ramsey, Lay's lead lawyer, joined Skilling's request in a separate filing Monday that noted, "we reluctantly but firmly urge it be done." Causey's lawyers, Reid Weingarten and Mark Hulkower, also joined the effort in another separate filing that added New Orleans as a fourth alternative city.
Causey's legal team expected to file a similar venue change request Monday. Michael Ramsey, Lay's lead lawyer, said Monday his team was considering joining the Skilling request.
Skilling's request to move the trial was prepared with input from a jury and polling expert and Rice University social scientist Stephen Klineberg, among others.
The government will file a response before U.S. District Judge Sim Lake issues a ruling.
Petrocelli said widespread media coverage in Houston of Skilling, Lay and other defendants has siphoned their ability to find 12 unbiased jurors in the 13-county area from which jurors in Houston are selected.
The filing also claims that potential jurors will feel pressure to punish the scandal-choked company's former top executives.
"The strong feelings of sympathy and pathos that exist in Houston for Enron's perceived victims are matched in intensity only by Houstonians' open hostility toward Skilling, his co-defendants, and other Enron executives they believe are responsible," the filing said.
Potential jury pools in Denver, Phoenix and Atlanta have been exposed to much less Enron-related publicity, the filing said.
A polling and jury expert surveyed between 770 and 805 potential jurors in Houston, Phoenix, Denver and Atlanta. Results showed nearly 32 percent of Houston respondents had negative descriptions of Skilling, but Atlanta had the most of the other three at 13 percent.
"All eyes in Houston will be focused on just the 12 people serving on Skilling's jury," the filing said. "Each such juror is far more likely than a juror in Phoenix, Denver or Atlanta to hesitate to acquit out of fear of being stigmatized as someone who 'Let Skilling and Lay get away.'"
The Causey filing called data gathered by the Skilling team compelling "and, quite frankly, scary in their implications for Mr. Causey's ability to receive a fair trial."
Enron went bankrupt under crushing revelations of hidden debt, inflated profits and accounting tricks, leaving thousands jobless.
The Justice Department's investigation, nearing its three-year mark, has netted 15 guilty pleas and six convictions. Skilling, Lay and Causey are among 11 awaiting trial.
Five of the convictions came last week when four former Merrill Lynch & Co. executives and a former Enron finance executive were found guilty of helping push through a loan disguised as the sale of power barges to the brokerage in late 1999. Arthur Andersen LLP, Enron's former auditor, was convicted in June 2002 of obstruction of justice for destroying Enron-related documents.
A sixth defendant in the barge trial, former in-house Enron accountant Sheila Kahanek, was acquitted, but Klineberg notes in a footnote in the filing that Skilling, Lay and Causey are "decidedly unlike" Kahanek because they "are viewed as the personification of Enron."
The barge defendants didn't ask for a change of venue.
A change of venue request also is pending in the March 2005 fraud and conspiracy trial of five former executives from Enron's defunct broadband unit.