What do electricity-producing barges off the coast of Nigeria have to do with the implosion of energy giant Enron nearly three years ago? Not much directly, but government prosecutors are hoping this first obscure Enron-related trial, beginning today in Houston federal court, could lay the groundwork to catch the bigger fish.
The government believes that Enron's sale 1999 sale of an interest in the Nigerian barges to Merrill Lynch & Co. was fraudulent and allowed the company to record nearly $12 million in pretax profit, the Wall Street Journal reported. The case fuels the government's contention that wide-scale financial abuses occurred and larger criminal cases are pending against former Chairman Kenneth Lay and former President Jeffrey Skilling, among others, with more indictments expected.
"I think this trial is going to set the stage for all the cases coming down the line," Gene Murphy, a litigator with law firm Bryan Cave in Chicago, told Reuters. Thirty people, most of them former Enron officials, face charges so far as the result of the federal Enron Task Force's ongoing investigation. Some have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the government, the Journal reported.
With Merrill Lynch involved in the case, Wall Street is on edge. This could be the only time the investment bankers who allegedly helped Enron defraud investors are brought to court in the case. While acquittals in the barge case likely would "result in a great sigh of relief on Wall Street," convictions could put further pressure on major investment-banking firms to reassess "how far is too far in protecting a client relationship," Jacob Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor and Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement attorney now in private practice in Washington, D.C., told the Journal.
The Merrill Lynch defendants reportedly consulted with in-house counsel who said the barge transaction appeared to be legal, which could help them gain acquittal in the case, which is hardly an open-and-shut case for the government. However, it is "one of the easier cases the government has. It's simplified and focused," John Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University in New York, told the Journal. "If the government fails here, they have problems in all the rest of these cases."
The case is also presents the first test of the Houston-area jury pool, which many say has been contaminated by the massive publicity surrounding the company's demise.