U.S. v. Skilling

Decision Date06 January 2009
Docket NumberNo. 06-20885.,06-20885.
Citation554 F.3d 529
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Jeffrey K. SKILLING, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Joseph Douglas Wilson (argued), San Francisco, CA, for U.S.

Daniel M. Petrocelli (argued), Mark Randall Oppenheimer, Matthew T. Kline, David J. Marroso, O'Melveny & Myers, Los Angeles, CA, Ronald G. Woods, Houston, TX, Meaghan Elizabeth McLaine, O'Melveny & Myers, Washington, DC, for Skilling.

John D. Cline, Jones Day, San Francisco, CA, for Amicus Curiae.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

Before SMITH and PRADO, Circuit Judges, and LUDLUM*, District Judge.

PRADO, Circuit Judge.

A jury convicted former Enron Corporation CEO Jeffrey K. Skilling ("Skilling") for conspiracy, securities fraud, making false representations to auditors, and insider trading. Skilling argues that the government prosecuted him using an invalid legal theory, that the district court used erroneous jury instructions, that the jury was biased, that prosecutors engaged in unconstitutional misconduct, and that his sentence is improper. We affirm the convictions, vacate the sentence, and remand for resentencing.

I. Factual Background

Skilling's rise at Enron began when he founded Enron's Wholesale business in 1990. In 1997, he became Enron's President and Chief Operating Officer and joined the Board of Directors. In February 2001, he became Enron's CEO, and on August 14, 2001, Skilling resigned from Enron.

About four months after Skilling's departure, Enron crashed into sudden bankruptcy. An initial investigation uncovered an elaborate conspiracy to deceive investors about the state of Enron's fiscal health. That conspiracy allegedly included overstating the company's financial situation for more than two years in an attempt to ensure that Enron's short-run stock price remained artificially high. With Congress looking on, the President appointed a team of investigators, the Enron Task Force. The investigation led to criminal charges against Skilling and many others.

According to the government, the conspiracy, led by Skilling and Ken Lay ("Lay"), Enron's CEO until Skilling took over (and again after his abrupt exit), worked to manipulate Enron's earnings to satisfy Wall Street's expectations. Other top Enron officials were key players in the unlawful scheme, including Richard Causey ("Causey"), the Chief Accounting Officer ("CAO"); Andrew Fastow ("Fastow"), the Chief Financial Officer ("CFO"); and Ben Glisan ("Glisan"), the Treasurer.

A. Conspiracy and Securities Fraud

Several of Skilling's convictions stem from allegations of conspiracy and securities fraud. The government presented evidence that Skilling engaged in fraud in several of Enron's business endeavors. As an international, multi-billion dollar enterprise, Enron had elaborate financial dealings. At the time of its bankruptcy, the company was comprised of four major businesses: Wholesale, which bought and sold energy; Transportation and Distribution, which owned energy networks; Retail, or Enron Energy Services ("EES"), which sold energy to end-users; and Broadband, or Enron Broadband Services ("EBS"), which bought and sold bandwidth capacity. The government alleged that Skilling took specific fraudulent actions with respect to Wholesale, EES, and EBS.

Wholesale, the most profitable division, accounted for nearly 90% of Enron's revenue. The government presented evidence to show that the conspirators lied about the nature of Wholesale, calling it a "logistics company," even though it was a much more economically volatile "trading company." Construing Wholesale as a "logistics company" had important ramifications for how investors valued the division. In fact, Skilling reportedly told Ken Rice ("Rice"), EBS's CEO, that if investors perceived Enron as a trading company, its stock would "get whacked." The alleged artifice also included masking the losses of Enron's other struggling subdivisions by shifting the losses to Wholesale. That made the struggling divisions appear financially sound and thus encouraged additional investment.

EES was a retail undertaking that Enron created to sell natural gas to customers in deregulated markets. Although Enron had high expectations for EES's profitability after its initial start-up period, EES did not meet these expectations. As of the fall of 2000, various utilities in California owed Enron substantial fees, which Enron had already booked as profits under its "mark-to-market accounting."1 The utilities, however, were suffering heavy financial losses and stopped paying these fees. Under general accounting rules, Enron should have recorded a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars based on the failure of the utilities to pay the fees, but Skilling and his co-conspirators tried to hide the harm by transferring the losses to Wholesale so that EES would continue to show promise, at least on paper.

The government claims that Skilling hid EES's other problems as well. For example, in early 2001, EES employees allegedly realized that Enron was not properly valuing EES's contracts and that, again because of Enron's use of mark-to-market accounting, Enron would need to record a loss of many millions of dollars. Skilling allegedly told David Delainey, who was in charge of EES, to "bleed the contract issues over time" instead of recognizing the loss all at once.

Skilling again concealed EES's losses within Wholesale in late March 2001, after the California Public Utilities Commission decided to add a surcharge to electricity. Enron lost hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of this surcharge because, under its contracts, it could not pass the extra fees on to its customers. After Skilling was consulted and signed off, Enron shifted the EES losses to Wholesale by transfering EES's risk-management books to Wholesale. Business at EES did not improve, and by August 2001, when Skilling left Enron, EES had lost over $700 million in that year alone. Enron failed to account for these losses properly, making EES appear to be in better financial shape than it really was.

EBS was Enron's attempt to enter the telecommunications industry. Enron invested more than $1 billion in EBS, but lost money every quarter as EBS struggled to meet earnings targets. The government claims that in 2000, EBS managed to reach its earnings targets, but only by means of transactions afield from its core business (such as selling and monetizing corporate assets). Skilling allegedly hid from investors EBS's failure to meet earnings targets through core business activities.2

The government claims that Skilling knew EBS was struggling, at least based on its record of performance, but that he wanted to announce to the investing public that EBS was doing well and would do even better in 2001. Although EBS's executives said it was impossible, Skilling set EBS's earnings targets for 2001 to be a loss of only $65 million. EBS's personnel initially thought a loss estimate of nearly $500 million was more realistic, and, even with the best circumstances, they projected losses of at least $110 million. Rice, EBS's CEO, warned Skilling that the earnings targets for EBS were wrong, but Skilling apparently would not change them. Skilling told Rice that certain international assets were not producing sufficiently and that "we really need to hang in there for a year or two until EES and EBS could pick up the slack," because Enron "didn't need any more bad news."

In 2001, EBS was projected to lose $35 million in the first quarter, but Rice quickly realized that losses would actually be around $150 million. Skilling allegedly found out but would not budge on earnings targets, instead authorizing EBS to fire employees and engage in more non-core business to boost revenues. It worked for the first quarter, although Rice likened the monetizations to "one more hit of crack cocaine on these earnings." EBS faired a little better in the second quarter of 2001, reporting losses of approximately $100 million. Given that EBS continued to lose money, however, Enron decided to merge EBS into Wholesale. Ultimately, Enron lost the entire $1 billion that it had initially invested in EBS.

B. False Representations About Enron's Finances

Many of the allegations of fraud also stem from Skilling's representations to investors about the financial standing of Wholesale, EES, and EBS. Skilling, as a high ranking corporate officer, held conference calls with investors to update them on the company's progress. The government claims that Skilling misled investors during these calls. For example, on January 22, 2001, Enron released its earnings report for the previous quarter, and Skilling told investors that "the situation in California [regarding the utilities] had little impact on fourth quarter results. Let me repeat that. For Enron, the situation in California had little impact on fourth quarter results." Skilling also stated that "nothing can happen in California that would jeopardize" earnings targets.

However, when he made these statements, Skilling allegedly knew that the California utilities likely could not pay the fees that Enron was expecting and that Enron might have to write off a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars. He also listened silently as Mark Koenig ("Koenig"), Enron's Director of Investor Relations, assured investors that non-core business revenues were a "fairly small" amount of EBS's earnings, which the government alleges was not actually the case.3

Three days later, Skilling spoke at Enron's annual analysts conference, claiming that EES and EBS, like Enron's other major businesses, had "sustainable high earnings power." Skilling argues that this statement was merely harmless puffery. At the conference, he also reasserted that Wholesale was "not a trading business. We are a logistics company."

On March 23, 2001, Enron held a special conference...

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