I don’t know about you, but when I heard that Jeffrey Skilling, the former chief executive officer of Enron, was sentenced to 24 years in prison for the massive fraud that precipitated the crash of the once high-flying company, I could only think of one word: “Sweet.”
Actually, that was only the first word. Others followed later, like “well-deserved,” “justice is served” and “about time.”
I visualized him being brought to jail and then heard the heavy door slam shut, with that slam reverberating over and over again–just like it does in the movies when the criminal gets thrown in the clinker for a long, long time.
Skilling, who routinely showed no remorse for what happened on his watch and even at his sentencing maintained his complete innocence, is of course going to appeal the federal judge’s decision. But I would hope and expect that the sentence is maintained on appeal.
In terms of years it comes only slightly behind that of Bernie Ebbers, the former CEO of WorldCom, who got 25 years and is now incarcerated.
For Skilling to maintain his innocence of any and all wrongdoing in Enron’s fall is simply beyond the realm of plausibility. And obviously that’s what the jury thought when it convicted him on 19 counts, including one on inside trading. Indeed, the judge who sentenced him said that Skilling “repeatedly lied to investors,” which of course means that he knew exactly what was happening but made deliberate misstatements about it.
The sentence, if it is upheld, will probably bring some sort of closure–however small–to the thousands of Enron employees who were robbed of their retirement savings because of the accounting fraud that had so many manifestations in the years that Enron catapulted into the corporate stratosphere.
But no matter how long the sentence is, it can’t bring recompense to those same cheated employees, many of whose entire retirement funds were in Enron stock and who lost everything because they could not get out of the stock as it plummeted.
Kenneth Lay, who was chairman of Enron and CEO after Skilling, was also convicted of many counts of fraud and was scheduled to be sentenced at the same time as Skilling. Lay, however, died early in July and his conviction was recently vacated, since he was in no position to appeal. Apparently, the stress took its toll on Kenny Boy, as President Bush immortally nicknamed him.
There has been so much corruption, corporate and otherwise, in the last few years and this is why is it so crucial that egregious white-collar crimes like those committed by Enron’s top executives be severely punished.
Many people–the proverbial “little guys”–feel the system is already gamed in favor of institutional investors and other similar heavy hitters. So, when something like Enron happens and thousands of the little guys are the ones who pay severely, it’s just one more blow to trust in the system. This is especially true when it comes out later that executives at Enron were selling stock at the same time that employees were prohibited from doing so.
The whole thing brings home once again just how important trust is to the insurance business–the one thing it can absolutely never afford to lose. Fortunately, most people I’ve met–company or producer–know this deep down and feel it as a point of pride. May it always remain that way.