On Monday, former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review his 2006 conviction for securities fraud. Citing prior complaints about pretrial publicity and the unfair application of the "honest services" fraud statute, Skilling's lawyer, Daniel Petrocelli, argued that his client was unfairly convicted.
In 2006, Skilling was found guilty of 19 counts of conspiracy, insider trading, and securities fraud for his role in Enron's overvaluation and subsequent failure. Sentenced to 24 years and four months in prison (more of a dorm, really), he immediately began the appeals process, largely based on the notion that he could not get a fair trial due to the publicity surrounding his case. Further, Skilling's attorneys argued that his financial crimes were committed out of an attempt to save his company, and he did not profit from his actions.
As outrageous as it sounds, there might be some validity to Skilling's claim that he could not get a fair hearing in Houston. After all, this was Enron's company town, and the failure of the energy giant led to the disappearance of 20,000 jobs. Even Skilling's subsequent agreement to pay $85 billion to help employees who lost their pensions seems unlikely to completely salve the bruised feelings that he left behind.
Skilling's other claim, however, is much more spurious. Considering that his annual income sometimes ran into nine figures, the idea that he didn't stand to benefit from his financial crimes lacks credibility. Moreover, given that he made approximately $60 million from his sale of Enron shares within months of leaving the company, it is difficult to see how he could be acquitted of insider trading.
Even so, Skilling soldiers on. In January, he lost an appeal, but was approved for re-sentencing, which could reduce his prison time by up to ten years. His current appeal to the Supreme Court seems to be the final shot at having his sentence reversed. It's hard to imagine how much this process is costing Skilling; according to some estimates, the price of his initial legal defense was $65 million, and he continues to retain the same celebrity lawyer at, presumably, the same exorbitant rates. However, given his impressive paydays earlier in this decade, it seems likely that Skilling will be able to continue to pay the piper in his seemingly endless quest for a reversal.
The Skilling drama is particularly interesting in light of the American legal system's shameful development in the past decade. Although some cite the OJ Simpson case as a landmark in purchased justice, the 21st century has witnessed an almost banana republic level of legal corruption and manipulation. The opening chord may well have been the 2001 Lizzie Grubman trial. After the wealthy socialite plowed her SUV into a crowd outside a Hampton's nightclub, she was charged with 26 criminal counts, including second-degree assault, driving while intoxicated, and reckless endangerment. Ultimately, she ended up serving a mere 37 days in jail.
Not long afterward, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton seemed to be in a race to see who could serve the least jail time for the most crimes. The winner was Lohan, whose history of car accidents, cocaine possession, cocaine use, and DUI have yielded her voluntary stints in rehab, 84 minutes in jail, and ten days of community service.
While the legal antics of America's rich young women have been horrifying, the country's greatest miscarriages of justice may well have been tied to to the government. For example, Vice President Cheney's 2006 shooting of Harry Whittington led to no legal action, despite considerable evidence that the official story of the shooting was highly inaccurate.
Even Cheney's firearm malfunction pales beside the Lewis "Scooter" Libby fiasco. Following the politically motivated outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame in 2003, it became clear that Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and Richard Armitage had all taken a hand in the disclosure. Ultimately, however, the only person charged with a crime was Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, who was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements. Initially sentenced to 30 months in prison and fined $250,000, Libby's jail time was commuted by the president. Thus, in return for destroying the career of a spy, threatening the lives of all her assets, and undermining the United States' ability to conduct intelligence operations overseas, one of Vice President Cheney's aides was forced to fall on his sword and pay a quarter of a million dollars. By comparison, CBS was fined more than twice as much for airing a half-second flash of Janet Jackson's nipple.
Through the Lohans and Hiltons, Cheneys and Libbys, two cases have suggested that the legal system has a lingering, if tenuous, integrity. Skilling's sentence, paired with the 25 years given to WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers, offered the promise that, in a precious few instances, Justice is not only blind, but also incorruptible. In that context, it seems imperative to keep Skilling behind bars, if only to prove that there are times when the legal system doesn't carry a price tag.