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Prosecution Lambastes Enron Defendants in Closing Arguments

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Prosecutors in Houston yesterday attacked former Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling as being so arrogant they thought the rules didn't apply to them.

During four hours of closing arguments, prosecutors accused the defendants of accounting tricks, fiction hocus-pocus and outright lies; and prosecutors warned the jury not to be taken in by Lay and Skilling's stories.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Ruemmler shot out of the starting gate yesterday like a thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby. These guys are the masters of the cover story, Ruemmler told the jury. Their lies are shrouded in half-truths. That's what made them so good. That's what made them so believable.

Ruemmler paced up and down in front of the jury box like an actress in a legal drama. Turning toward Lay and Skilling, Ruemmler said, they're trying to deceive you in this courtroom in the exact same way they deceived their investors. Turning back toward the jury she said, it's insulting to your intelligence. Don't buy it.

There seemed to be no concern by the government that Lay and Skilling might have made any serious in-roads with this jury during their testimony, and the prosecution's attack was relentless. Ruemmler repeatedly used the words absurd and ridiculous to describe the defendants' explanations of their alleged crimes.

She hammered Skilling for saying that he didn't remember incriminating conversations recounted by Skilling's former colleagues, now government witnesses. Ruemmler described how Skilling allegedly moved millions in losses from one company division to another to hide their source. Their cover story was that this was going to improve efficiencies, the prosecutor practically snorted. This was crystal clear evidence of intent to defraud.

If Skilling got it bad from Ruemmler, Lay caught it even worse. The government spent at least two-thirds of its allotted time yesterday focusing on Ken Lay. The words liar and fraud were used dozens of times to describe the former chairman and CEO.

Andrew Weissmann is the former director of the Justice Department's Enron Task Force.

Mr. ANDREW WEISSMANN (Former Director, Enron Task Force, Department of Justice): When you've charged the person with lying to the public and you're going to ask the jury to make a finding on that, you better be willing to say it. If you're not willing to say it, you can't expect the jury to say it when they come back with a verdict.

GOODWYN: Weissmann says the attention focused on Lay was actually a reflection of the government's confidence in their case against Jeff Skilling, and Weissmann says that prosecutors never bought into the theory that Ken Lay might be held in higher esteem by a Houston jury than Skilling.

Mr. WEISSMANN: You have to remember that the image of Lay as this grandfatherly type who is detached with something that was coming from the defense camp - so Lay, by taking the stand, really allowed the jury to see what the cooperating witnesses who testified for the government were describing; which is a guy who was very involved and who appears to, you know, have not helped himself out by taking the stand.

GOODWYN: Today, it will be the defense's turn to fill the prosecution's witnesses full of holes. And with talented defense lawyers Daniel Petrocelli and Mike Ramsey, the hunting is likely to be good.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Houston.

MONTAGNE: You can read Wade Goodwyn's analysis of Lay and Skilling's performances on the stand and how it might affect the jury's decision at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.