The first trial of Enron executives is set to begin in 10 days, and a judge said Thursday he expects to be able to pick a fair jury in Houston.
U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein told the lawyers for two former Enron executives and four former Merrill Lynch executives accused of fraud in the sale of Nigerian barges that he plans to ask 100 prospective jurors on June 7 whether they have developed any insurmountable biases because of Enron’s collapse.
“Most, if not all, will have heard something about the collapse of Enron — that’s to be expected,” the judge told lawyers.
The jurist said he certainly wants to screen for people financially harmed by the company’s fall.
But Werlein stressed his biggest concern is that the jury members not know any of the six defendants or have a preconceived notion about the one deal involved in this case.
“This is not the big high-profile Enron case. This is one discreet matter in 1999,” Werlein said when he denied a government request to keep jurors’ names anonymous, as was done in the 2002 Arthur Andersen obstruction of justice trial that related to the accountants’ work for Enron.
This first case against Enron insiders focuses on a relatively small deal for the likes of both Enron and Merrill Lynch, a financial firm that was courting Enron business at the time.
Enron Task Force prosecutors argue that in 1999, Enron’s transfer to Merrill Lynch of interest in electricity-generating barges off Nigeria was a sham sale designed simply to beef up Enron’s books and generate bonuses for those involved. The government hopes to show that there was an oral side deal in which Enron promised Merrill Lynch that Enron would buy back the barges and guarantee a profit to Merrill Lynch.
Defense attorneys want to show there was no enforceable side deal and even if there was, their clients didn’t know about it.
This case is especially important to those involved in the Enron investigation because it is a small deal that serves as a microcosm of the multiple accusations against higher ups at Enron, it is a part of the government’s separate case against ex-CEO Jeff Skilling and it will either weaken or strengthen the Enron Task Force’s clout depending on how they fare.
Although the defendants did not ask that this trial be moved for fear of local bias, several defense attorneys expressed concern Thursday that they sufficiently vet potential jurors for a “broader bias” they could have about Enron executives, Merrill Lynch executives or corporate corruption accusations.
A nearly four-page jury questionnaire submitted to the judge by defense attorneys and prosecutors asked questions such as what TV shows they regularly watch and Internet sites they regularly visit. The judge asked them to pare the questionnaire down to one page.
The barge case defendants set to go to trial in June are former Enron employees Dan Boyle and Sheila Kahanek, and former Merrill Lynch employees James A. Brown, Daniel Bayly, William Fuhs and Robert Furst.