Disgraced ex-Enron chief executive is sentenced to 24 years in prison

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The Independent Online

The former Enron chief executive, Jeffrey Skilling, was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison yesterday, the second longest punishment ever meted out to an American white-collar criminal, for his role in the spectacular collapse of what was once the country's seventh-largest company.

Judge Sim Lak, the federal judge who presided over Skilling's trial in Houston, Texas said he did not find it easy to impose such a harsh punishment on a family man with an undoubted flair for business, but that the nature of Skilling's crimes - he was convicted on 19 out of 28 counts of fraud and conspiracy in May - gave him no choice.

"As the many victims have so eloquently testified, his crimes have imposed on hundreds, if not thousands, a life sentence of poverty," Judge Lake said.

Enron's collapse in late 2001 left thousands of people stripped of their pensions and out of work, while top executives such as Skilling and his co-defendant, the company founder, Ken Lay, made sizeable profits from share sales in the weeks and months leading up to the debacle.

It was a major embarrassment to the Bush administration, which had forged close ties with the company, and prompted the collapse of Arthur Andersen, which acted as Enron's accountant.

Lay died of heart disease in July and has since had his own conviction vacated, on the grounds that his demise robbed him of the opportunity to appeal. Advocates for former Enron employees were angry they would not have an opportunity to pursue Lay's heirs for some of his assets. They will, however, have that chance with Skilling - Judge Lake ordered him to forfeit about $45m (£24m), to be distributed among the employees he defrauded. That may rise, depending on the outcome of a concurrent civil suit going through the federal courts in Houston.

Skilling's sentence was not as harsh as some predicted - many legal observers thought he would receive more than 25 years and so exceed the record-setting sentence imposed on Bernard Ebbers, the former chief executive of MCI WorldCom who defrauded employees and shareholders of some $11bn.

But Skilling failed to secure a couple of concessions sought by his lawyers. He will not remain free on bail pending his appeal. And his 292-month sentence is 10 months more than a cut-off point that would have enabled him to serve out his term at a lower-security facility. He is expected to report to his cell as soon as the federal Bureau of Prisons sets a date.