Houston has a problem: the countdown starts at Enron

As the accounting scandal builds to its court climax, Katherine Griffiths reports from the Texan city on the rise and fall of the energy trader, the wrongfooting of Wall Street and the financial fallout in the local community

The ornate mansions - some of which span an entire block - were first built by the oilmen who struck black gold here. In the 1960s, astronauts moved in as Nasa's Johnson Space Center grew up. And in the 1990s, the people who created Enron, the energy trader that became Houston's most famous local company, took up home in the city's most exclusive postcode.

A few of them are still there, though these days they are keeping a much lower profile. Kenneth Lay, Enron's former chairman, lives with his wife, Linda, in a high-rise block of luxury flats.

Jeffrey Skilling, the former chief executive who once owned a huge, Mediterranean-style palazzo, is still thought to be spending much of his time in the area. Andrew Fastow, the former chief financial officer, lives not quite in River Oaks but in the still-desirable area of South Hampton.

But Fastow will not be there for much longer. He pleaded guilty to helping to orchestrate a massive fraud at Enron and is about to spend 10 years in prison under a plea bargain he struck with prosecutors.

Lay and Skilling might not spend much more time there either. Along with Richard Causey, Enron's former chief accountant, they will go on trial in Houston in January, after lawyers met last week to agree the legal framework. Having struck his plea bargain, Fastow - once Skilling's right-hand man - will be giving evidence against them.

The three are charged with orchestrating an audacious and wide-scale fraud, which led to Enron's collapse into bankruptcy in December 2001 and left thousands of workers without a job and many investors suffering heavy losses.

While the three's lawyers have been working on the complex case for months, momentum is now picking up. This autumn, a series of pre-trial hearings will be held in Houston's federal courthouse, just a few blocks from the gleaming skyscraper that used to be Enron's headquarters.

But the trial, scheduled to begin on 17 January and to last eight months, is not eagerly awaited by many in Houston. Locals have spent three years trying to make up for the impact of Enron's collapse on the economy, which included putting 6,000 people out of work in the city and bringing down another local employer - the company's accountant, Arthur Andersen.

Car dealerships, building rentals, restaurants and bars all felt the blow, especially as it came when the economy was still reeling from the terrorist attacks of 11 September.

Houston has also spent the past few years trying to gloss over its symbolic connection with the company. "Enron Field", home to the local baseball team, has been changed to "Minute Maid Park" after the orange juice firm that now sponsors it. And Enron has also been quietly erased from the hospital wings, concert halls and charitable foundations that it used to fund.

Philip Hilder, a lawyer in the city, said: "Enron's collapse had a devastating effect on Houston's psyche and was a real blow to its pocketbook. Many people felt betrayed by a company that was perceived to be a shining star but turned out to be a shooting star, which burned out fast."

While the three defendants might not relish facing a jury drawn from the local area, the prosecution won't have an easy ride either. The Enron case is not like the lawsuits that have been wrapped up against Bernie Ebbers, the former chief of the collapsed telecoms group WorldCom, or Richard Scrushy, the ex-head of the medical services company HealthSouth. In those cases, a small number of executives faced relatively straightforward charges of theft (Ebbers is heading to prison for 25 years, while Scrushy was acquitted).

In the case of Enron, the US government has assembled an entire taskforce of famous prosecutors from across the country. More than 30 individuals have been criminally charged, with 16 pleading guilty to various crimes so far.

The Enron case will be "the mother of all white-collar prosecutions", said Hilder, who is representing Sherron Watkins, the former vice-president at Enron who wrote a whistle-blowing memo to Lay in August 2001 highlighting the company's questionable accounting practices.

"Some of the other cases involved straight-out thievery by executives," added Hilder. "This is far more complex, involving multiple layers of professionals, lawyers, accountants and business managers. It is also harder to prove criminal intent because of the nature of the transactions. They were masked as legitimate business deals."

It is not just a jury of local people who might struggle to get to grips with the inside story at Enron. Over the years, the opaque nature of its business has foxed many experienced analysts and investors on Wall Street.

Enron was founded by Lay in 1985 as a natural-gas refiner and distributor, but it soon ballooned into an international conglomerate whose holdings ranged from Wessex Water in the UK to power plants in India and Brazil.

But it was in the area of US energy deregulation where Lay spotted his biggest opportunity, donating millions of dollars to advance its cause with politicians. In 1990, he hired Skilling, a high-flying management consultant who had been an adviser to Enron.

The two swiftly took advantage of a move, led by California, to relax rules requiring electricity and gas to be supplied locally. The deregulation created energy trading exchanges on which power provided by private companies could be bought and sold.

Skilling masterminded Enron's advance, creating a huge trading floor at the company's HQ and pioneering the financial instruments, such as energy futures, by which the company agreed to provide electricity at a certain price - sometimes for years to come.

By 2000, Enron had made such progress in energy trading that this segment accounted for most of its revenues. Gradually it sold pipelines and other assets it considered old fashioned.

The strategy seemed to work. In 1999, at its stock market peak, Enron was worth $70bn (£39bn). By 2001, it was America's seventh-biggest company.

Yet the appearance belied the reality. The company was racking up large amounts of debt, which it was hiding by creating thousands of off-balance-sheet partnerships. These lent the company money in return for assets.

While Wall Street thought Enron's revenues were growing at a phenomenal pace, not everyone was fooled. In late 2000, it caught the attention of James Chanos, who runs Kynikos Associates, a New York-based investment house that looks for short-selling opportunities in overvalued companies.

Chanos and his team analysed the financial filings and found them to be irregular. "Even with questionable accounting, Enron had a very low return on capital", said Chanos.

John Olson, a veteran analyst at Houston Energy Partners, said there were "two Enrons": the old oil and gas business and the apparently high-flying energy trader. "What Enron became was a movie with lots of traffic which looks very busy. But when you look behind the scene, you just see dirt and garbage."

Both Olson and Chanos became particularly concerned because Enron used private partnerships to provide funding that were not clearly accounted for on its balance sheet, and because it used "mark-to-market accounting". This approach allowed them to immediately book profits on long-term energy trades, which in reality were only valuations of what those deals might really be worth. With those two factors, plus Enron's heavy use of derivatives, "I could tell you black is white or night is day," said Olson.

Lay, Skilling and Causey vigorously deny that this is a true description of Enron, saying they were as shocked as anyone when the true state of its finances was revealed. Fastow will argue they were fully aware of the situation.

While the result will be high drama for onlookers, it will be a setback for Charlie Savino of the Greater Houston Partnership, which represents local businesses. Savino has been spending his time since Enron's sensational collapse focusing on Houston's future, including promoting the growth of businesses outside the fields of oil and gas, such as in biotechnology and the nascent nanotechnology industry. For him, the trial will be a sad reminder of a company that was the city's most generous donor to local causes - whose employees were encouraged to get involved in charity runs while its chairman gave his time generously to the partnership.

Enron's sudden vanishing was a "tragedy", he said. And of Lay, once the most conscientious of Houston's local business leaders, he expressed bewilderment: "Those who know him are still in shock. I'm guessing he doesn't even know what went wrong."

BRITISH BANKERS ON THE BRINK

Three British financiers who worked for one of the UK's leading banks have become central to an intriguing sideshow to the Enron scandal. If US prosecutors manage to extradite them to Texas, and they are found guilty, the three could go to prison for up to 22 years.

Giles Darby, 42, David Bermingham, 42, and Gary Mulgrew, 43, worked for Greenwich NatWest, an American, bonds-focused subsidiary of Royal Bank of Scotland. They were among the hundreds of bankers who did business with Enron.

They are now accused of hatching a plot with Andrew Fastow to defraud the British bank. The three allegedly persuaded NatWest to sell its stake in a Cayman Islands firm for around $1m; it was then sold to Enron for some $20m. The British bankers, who invested personally in one of Enron's off-balance sheet vehicles, which were controlled by Fastow, are accused of helping to cream off the balance.

Around $12m allegedly went jointly to Fastow and another Enron executive, Michael Kopper, with the NatWest bankers pocketing some $2.3m each.

The three deny they acted fraudulently and point out that when Enron collapsed in December 2001, they contacted Britain's Financial Services Authority to alert it to the dealings they had had with Enron.

US government lawyers separately started investigating the bankers and now want to extradite them to stand trial in Texas.

The three were last month granted the right to a judicial review of their case, which is scheduled for 15 November. They are separately appealing against a decision by Bow Street Magistrates' Court to allow the extradition to go ahead. If both of those strategies fail, the bankers will push for an appeal to the House of Lords and finally to the European Court of Human Rights.

Douglas McNabb, a Texas-based defence lawyer, said that if the US succeeds with the extradition request, they will be treated as serious criminals.

"They will be handcuffed, they will be in leg chains and they will have chains around their waists. They will be kept in the maximum security federal detention centre and, if convicted, could receive 22 years without parole," said McNabb.

It could end up being the worst punishment meted out to anyone in the Enron scandal.

ENRON'S FAMOUS FOUR: ONE PLEA BARGAIN AND THREE EXECUTIVES IN THE DOCK

Kenneth Lay

Born to a poor family from Missouri, Kenneth Lay gained a doctorate in economics and embarked on a career in the energy industry. He created Enron in 1985.

Known as "Kenny Boy", he became close friends with the Bush family and pushed for government-led deregulation of the oil and gas industry.

He led Enron as chief executive and then chairman until 2001, apart from a brief stint as chief executive that year by Jeffrey Skilling.

Lay, 63, has been indicted on seven counts, which he denies. These focus on allegations that he repeatedly misled the public and investors when he knew Enron was struggling.

He is also charged with profiting from Enron's fraud by selling large amounts of stock at prices that did not reflect its true value. Over four years, he sold stock worth more than $300m.

Along with Skilling and Richard Causey, Lay could face a 30-year sentence if found guilty.

Jeffrey Skilling

Highly strung, with mood swings between supreme self confidence and brooding introversion, Jeffrey Skilling created the vision of Enron as a radically new oil and gas group, focusing on the volatile area of energy trading.

Having joined from the consultancy firm McKinsey in 1990, he rose to chief executive of Enron in February 2001, resigning abruptly in the August four months before the company collapsed.

Skilling was charged with 35 counts of conspiracy, fraud and insider trading in February 2004.

All in all, he made $200m offloading his Enron shares. He has hired some of the top lawyers in the US and given them a defence fund of $23m.

He no longer drives around with his WLEC (world's leading energy company) numberplate.

Richard Causey

Enron's chief accountant Richard Causey (right) reported directly to Skilling and is accused of being a principal architect and operator of the scheme to manipulate Enron's reported earnings.

Causey has said he is not guilty of charges of fraud, wire fraud and insider trading. Unlike Andrew Fastow, Enron's chief financial officer, he is not accused of skimming millions of dollars for himself through self-dealing.

The charges against him and Skilling came five weeks after Fastow pleaded guilty to securities fraud.

Andrew Fastow

The 43-year-old was one of the first people brought into Enron by Skilling and, as chief financial officer, rapidly became the right-hand man to the chief executive.

Fastow hid Enron's huge financial liabilities by offloading them into shell companies registered in places as far afield as the Channel Islands and the Cayman Islands.

These vehicles, which had names such as Jedi, Talon and Bobcat, were propped up by some of Wall Street's largest banks, and returns were up to 2,000 per cent. Fastow himself made more than $45m.

In January 2004, he agreed to become the star witness in the prosecution's case against Lay, Skilling and Causey.

He is the only member of Enron's most senior management to have pleaded guilty to wire and securities fraud and has agreed to serve a 10-year prison sentence and to repay $24m. His wife, Lea, was also implicated, and accepted a one-year sentence which she has just finished serving.

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