“An Enron End Run”: Using Expensive Legal Claims As Leverage, Top Enron Fraudster Reaches Deal To Slash Sentence
Even when Jeffrey Skilling was first sentenced for conspiring in one of the largest corporate fraud schemes in modern history, he received less jail time than some low-level drug offenders sentenced to harsh mandatory minimums. But this week, Skilling reached a deal with the Department of Justice to cut his 24-year sentence to as little as 14 years, in exchange for abandoning the onslaught of appeals he has launched at his own expense. Reuters reports:
The agreement … could result in Skilling’s freedom in late 2018, with good behavior.
In exchange, Skilling, 59, who has long maintained his innocence, agreed to stop appealing his conviction. The agreement would also allow more than $40 million seized from him to be freed up for distribution to Enron fraud victims.
A resentencing became necessary after a federal appeals court upheld Skilling’s conviction but found the original sentence too harsh.
Once ranked seventh on the Fortune 500 list of large U.S. companies, Enron went bankrupt on December 2, 2001 in an accounting scandal that remains one of the largest and most infamous U.S. corporate meltdowns.
Thousands of workers lost their jobs and retirement savings, and images were beamed around the globe of staff carrying possessions out of Enron’s downtown Houston office tower, past the company’s “crooked E” logo.
Even in 2006, when Skilling was first sentenced, his legal defense was deemed one of the most expensive in history at $65 million, and in the years since he has taken his case to the Supreme Court and back on appeal after appeal. By settling, the Department of Justice not only saved itself the considerable expense of continuing this legal battle; it also gets access to the more than $40 million in seized assets Skilling had previously not agreed to surrender. As a consequence of these negotiations, Skilling’s sentence is even more disparate from the 25-year-plus sentences of drug defendants charged for low-level offenses like selling their own pain pills to an undercover informant.
If Skilling’s reduced sentence is approved by a judge during his June hearing, as is likely, Skilling will nonetheless not have had an ideal run with the criminal justice system. His lawyers made a persuasive argument that the statute initially used to convict him was overly broad. And his sentence was disproportionately high relative to alleged Enron scandal mastermind Andrew Fastow, who got only six years in prison after he testified against both Skilling and Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay. But more severe versions of these problems plague countless criminal defendants, who, rather than having the leverage to shorten their sentence or the legal resources to take down a statute, are coerced into plea deals under threat of draconian prison terms.
By: Nicole Flatow, Think Progress, May 10, 2013
If corporations are people, as the Supreme Court pretends, they certainly are loudmouths, constantly telling us how great they are and spreading their names everywhere.
Amazingly, though, these corporate creatures have suddenly turned demure, insisting that they don’t want to draw any attention to themselves. That’s because, in this case, corporations are not selling, they’re buying — specifically, trying to buy public office for their pet political candidates by funneling millions of corporate dollars through such front groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In turn, the fronts use the money to air nasty attack ads that smear the opponents of the pro-corporate candidates.
Why do corporations need a middleman? Because the ads are so partisan and vicious that they would appall and anger millions of customers, employees and shareholders of the corporation. So, rather than besmirch their own names, the corporate powers have meekly retreated behind the skirts of Republican political outfits like the Chamber.
But don’t front groups have to report (at least to election authorities) who’s really behind their ads, so voters can make informed decisions? No. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizen United edict in 2010, such groups can now pour unlimited sums of corporate cash into elections without ever disclosing the names of their funders. This “dark money” channel has essentially established secret political campaigning in America.
That’s why shareholders and other democracy advocates are asking the Securities and Exchange Commission to rule that the corporate giants it regulates must reveal to shareholders all political donations their executives make with corporate funds. After all, the millions of dollars the executives are using to play politics don’t belong to them — it is shareholder money. And by no means do shareholders march in lockstep on which political candidates to support or oppose.
Hide and seek can be a fun game for kids, but it’s infuriating when CEOs play it in our elections. Last year, corporate interests sought to elect their candidates by hiding much of their politicking not only from company owners but also from voters. In all, $352 million in “dark money” poured into our 2012 elections, the bulk of it from corporations that covertly pumped it into secretive trade associations and such scams as “social welfare charities,” run by the likes of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers.
Since underhanded, anonymous electioneering puts a fatal curse on democracy, the SEC should at least compel corporate managers to tell their owners — i.e., the shareholders — how and on whom their money is being gambled in political races. It’s a simple reform, but — oh, lordy — what a fury it has caused among the political players.
A rare joint letter from the U.S. Chamber, Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufacturers has been sent to the CEOs of the 200 largest corporations in our country, rallying them to the barricades in a frenetic lobbying effort to stop this outbreak of honest, democratic disclosure.
House Republicans are even going to the extreme of trying to make it illegal for the SEC to let shareholders (and the voting public) know which campaigns are being backed by cash from which corporations. Hyperventilating, these powerful scaredycats claim to be intimidated by the very suggestion that they tell the people what they’re doing in public elections.
Their panic over having a little sunlight shine into their deepest bunker reveals just how destructive they intend dark money to be for our democracy. Ironically, the Supreme Court’s chief assumption in allowing unlimited corporate cash into the democratic process was that shareholders would be informed and involved, and provide public accountability for their companies’ political spending.
Even Justice Antonin Scalia, long a cheerleader for corporate politicking, is no fan of hiding it from the electorate: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage,” he has written, adding that a campaign “hidden from public scrutiny” is anathema to self-governance. He also deems it cowardly: “This does not resemble the Home of the Brave,” he pointedly noted.
By: Jim Hightower, The National Memo, May 8, 2013
Corporations are obligated to disclose how much their CEOs earn compared to the average worker, thanks to Section 953(b) of the financial reforms of 2010 known as Dodd-Frank.
However, three years after that bill became law, some of the nation’s largest corporations are battling regulators to prevent such disclosure, according to Bloomberg.
“The fact that corporate executives wouldn’t want to display the number speaks volumes,” said Phil Angelides, who was the chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which investigated the collapse that led to the Great Recession.
Angelides says that the attempt to block this provision is just one example of the “street-by-street, block-by-block fight” that corporations and Wall Street are waging against implementation of the modest reform package that passed only after it was weakened to garner Republican support in the Senate.
Groups including the American Insurance Association, Business Roundtable, National Investor Relations Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have petitioned the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), making the argument that “it is unclear how the pay ratio disclosure will be material for the reasonable investor when making investment decisions.” They claim that calculating such ratios is time consuming and almost impossible for multinational corporations.
Without obligated disclosure, there’s no clear way to assess CEO-to-worker ratio. In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported large-company CEO compensation was 319 times the median worker’s pay. Currently the average multiple of CEOs to a typical worker is 204 — up 20 percent since 2009, according to statistics collected from workers’ compensation estimates.
Bloomberg‘s Elliot Blair Smith and Phil Kuntz point to Ron Johnson, the recently ousted CEO of J.C. Penney, who earned a whopping 1,795 times what a typical $8.30-an-hour JCP salesperson took home.
The AFL-CIO has been attempting to counter the corporate lobbying with an effort to make the SEC put in place what is already law.
“The impact of high levels of CEO pay on employee morale is particularly important in today’s weak economy, when workers are being asked to do more for less,” suggests an online petition it is circulating to pass on to the government regulators.
“Estimates by academics and trade-union groups put the number at 20-to-1 in the 1950s, rising to 42-to-1 in 1980 and 120-to-1 by 2000,” Smith and Kuntz write.
Even if corporations are forced to disclose how much their top executive is paid, there are a variety of ways for them to cloak compensation.
Still the Campaign for America’s future calls enforcing Section 953(b) a crucial test for new SEC chair Mary Jo White to find out if she’ll be a “watchdog or a lap dog for Wall Street.”
By: Jason Sattler, The National Memo, May 2, 2013
It’s no secret that state and local government employment has nosedived during the current economic crisis. According to the St. Louis Fed, total local government employment has declined from 14,481,000 when the recession began in December 2007 to 14,033,000 in March. State government employment has fallen from 5,139,000 to 5,050,000 over the same period, for a total loss of 537,000 state and local government jobs.
This starkly illustrates the opportunity cost of out-of-control use of subsidies to business at the state and local level. In my academic work, I estimated these to be $48.8 billion a year in 1996, of which $26.4 billion was for investment attraction, and almost $70 billion in 2005, of which $46.8 billion was aimed specifically at investment attraction.
Many critics of investment incentives, such as Alan Peters and Peter Fisher, argue that the money would generally be better spent on education and infrastructure, policies that benefit businesses generally as well as the entire population. My cost estimates show just how true this is.
Total business subsidies could be used to hire 1.4 million government workers at $50,000 per year in salary and benefits. Instead, what we have seen in state after state is that there have been sharp cuts to these very areas, even extending to such economic development crown jewels as the state university systems in California and North Carolina, among others.
This is doubly short-sighted: It weakens the very factors that make a state or locality attractive to investment in the first place, and the state/local economic development subsidies largely cancel each other out with little net effect on the overall location of investment in the country. From the point of view of the country as a whole, then, most of these subsidies are a waste of money. But changing the way the economic development game is played will require tremendous effort at the local, state, and federal government level.
By: Kenneth Thomas, U. S. News and World Report, April 10, 2013