Guilty! Enron workers cheer Lay, Skilling verdicts

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HOUSTON – Enron workers who lost billions in pension benefits when the company collapsed are voicing satisfaction that at last top Enron executives have been found guilty of a long list of crimes that plunged the company into bankruptcy.

Former Enron Chairman Ken Lay and former CEO Jeffrey Skilling were convicted of multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy May 25 at the federal courthouse in Houston. Lay was convicted in two separate trials on 10 counts of conspiracy, securities fraud, wire fraud and bank fraud and for making false statements to banks. The jury found Skilling guilty on 19 of 28 counts.

Charles Priestwood, 67, who spent 33 years as an Enron pipeline worker, is one of thousands of plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit asking the court to order Enron to pay their pension benefits. His retirement package, once valued at $1.3 million, is now worthless. “I used to spend half an hour a month paying off every bill,” Priestwood told the World in a phone interview from his home outside Houston. “Now I spend 30 days every month trying to find the money to pay my bills.”

He said he and many other former Enron workers followed the trial and gave a little cheer when a jury found both Lay and Skilling guilty.

“I helped build Enron,” Priestwood said. “I kept the pressure in the pipelines steady all those years. Ninety-nine percent of the workers out in the field were honest. It was just that little cream at the top, the CEO and his cronies, who destroyed Enron. It was the most hurtful thing I’ve ever lived through.” Priestwood says now he looks back at his life and sees “one big void.”

The collapse of Enron four years ago put over 4,000 people out of work. Thousands of people lost their life savings. The AFL-CIO helped a number of Enron’s former employees with the transition back to work and advocated for decent benefits and a share of what resources were left.

Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO, which includes Houston, was active in support of the Enron workers. He told the World he was pleased by the verdict. “Finally, the top people at Enron are going to be held accountable for the massive loss of jobs and pensions they caused,” he said. “There might be some justice in the end for these workers. But we still have a long way to go with the appeals process.”

Priestwood expressed anger that the Enron workers “are still waiting for our day in court” five years after the company went bankrupt. “The defendants got their money. They want to keep our claims quiet and never let them come out in a trial. We were lied to all the way down from the federal level. They were telling us Enron stock should be trading at $144 to $150 a share. It turned out to be 40 cents a share.”

He blasted the obscene salaries and bonuses reaped by corporate CEOs. “These salaries are so out of whack, like one who is paid $123 million a year. Exxon-Mobil CEOs get salaries that are as sick as they were at Enron. We need laws and regulations to protect people against that kind of greed.”

Behind the cover of deregulation, Enron “gamed” the California energy market with rolling blackouts to buttress their phony claims of “energy shortages.” Enron and its accomplices gave this scam code names like “Fat Boy” and “Get Shorty.” Ken Lay met with Vice President Cheney and persuaded him to stop the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from intervening in the California power market. This cost Californians billions of dollars and resulted in a windfall for Enron.

President Bush was known to be very fond of Lay, whom he called “Kenny Boy.” Lay’s family donated about $140,000 to Bush’s political campaigns. With his encouragement, Enron employees gave Bush about $600,000 in political donations. Enron executives were major advisors to Cheney’s secret Energy Policy Task Force that pushed for across-the-board deregulation of gas and electric utilities.