America likes nothing better than to root for the underdog who overcomes great odds to achieve a success that few would ever predict. The defense mounted by former Enron CEOs Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling to the conspiracy and securities fraud charges filed against them for their role in the company’s collapse in 2001 had all the hallmarks of the underdog stories we are accustomed to seeing in movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which the protagonist overcomes powerful corrupt opponents and his own weakness. Alas, criminal prosecutions are not movies, although they do involve telling a story to an audience made up of 12 citizens. It is in the decision on how to tell the Enron story that the final result, a conviction of both defendants, may be seen.
According to the defense, Enron was a fundamentally sound business — much like the pure heart of Jefferson Smith — that had corrupt insiders (Andrew Fastow, et al.) and a wealth of outside agitators (the Wall Street Journal and short-sellers) who pushed the company to its demise. Lay in particular could claim the mantle of Jimmy Stewart with his up-from-poverty story and Midwestern charm that made him the successful public face of Enron. The trial was, according to both defendants, their chance to tell the “true” story of Enron, that the company was undone by others and how they never misled investors and the public about what was really taking place inside it.
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