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24 Years for Enron's Skilling: the Discussion, 24 Hours Later

Former Enron honcho Jeff Skilling's 24-year sentence was announced roughly 24 hours ago. Yet it's already sparked wide discussion on the law blogs as discussed in the round-up below. 

From this group discussion at White Collar Crime Blog, Ellen Pogdor and Peter Henning agree that Skilling's sentence (as well as World Com head Bernie Ebbers' 25-year sentence) was disproportionately large when compared with other nonviolent crime. Henning compares the sentence to those in recent lobbying scandals:

While Jeffrey Skilling receives 24 years for presiding over the collapse of Enron, former Congressman Randy (Duke) Cunningham sells his office to a string of defense contractors for a bit over $1 million and receives a sentence of 8 years. Soon-to-be former Congressman Bob Ney will likely be sentenced to less than 3 years in prison for selling out his office to lobbyists led by Jack Abramoff.   

Both Pogdor and Henning believe we're not likely to see sentences of this duration any time soon. Henning opines that with the enactment of new laws like Sarbanes-Oxley, executives won't have the ability to engage in the type of conduct that took place at Enron. And Pogdor predicts that we won't see sentences like this, because because people will eventually realize the worthlessness of issuing such draconian sentences in nonviolent white-collar cases. She contends that they don't deter future crime, since many like Skilling, who engaged in the conduct, continue to assert their innocence and thus, would not have changed their conduct.

Also in line with Pogdor and Henning is Professor Ribstein of Ideoblog, who doesn't agree that Skilling's sentence ought to be linked to investor losses:

Judge Lake may well have correctly applied the law by supposing that Skilling was tied to $80 million in investor losses. But to quote Mr. Bumble, who was told that the law supposed that his wife acted under his direction, "if the law supposes that, the law is a ass—a idiot.”

At the other end of the spectrum, some bloggers, while not supporting Skilling's sentence, note  that it's not out of line with the length of sentences typically meted out to small-fry criminals. Dan Hoffman at Concurring Opinions writes that he googled "sentenced to 24 years" and:

the results were, predictably, random.  A cop who stole drugs, a Dynergy executive (for accounting fraud, later reduced to six years), a retail level drug dealer, a woman busted (allegedly) for holding merely 2.72 g of cocaine, and the significant other of another large drug dealer, convicted for conspiracy.

Norm Pattis at Crime and Federalism also writes that Skilling was treated no differently than a common crack dealer. And Jamie Spencer of Austin Criminal Defense Blog uncovers far worse sentences:

Remember the 60 Minutes story on Leandro Andrade, who stole $153.54 worth of videotapes from Kmart? The Supreme Court upheld his two consecutive 25 to life sentences in Lockyer vs. Andrade...

But, if you find Skilling’s punishment obscenely disproportionate to the crime, ask yourself this: If we were able to combine Andrade’s lifetime of thefts, including the ones he probably never was arrested for, would the aggregate value of the victim’s losses even come close to the financial disaster that Skilling’s crimes caused?

Finally, some bloggers haven't bothered commenting on the duration of the sentence, because they maintain that Skilling should never have been convicted to begin with. Tom Kirkendall, at Houston's Clear Thinkers, who has intelligently critiqued the Enron prosecution from the start (see here  for partial link to back posts) concludes here that:

So, make no mistake about it -- Jeff Skilling was not sentenced yesterday in regard to the crime for which he was prosecuted and convicted. Rather, he was sentenced for causing Enron's failure. There is a big difference between those two crimes, and a quasi-life sentence for Skilling fails to distinguish between them.

Kirkendall's argument is probably of most interest to Dan Petrocelli, Skilling's lawyer, who briefly discussed his plans for appeal, including issues such as the judge's denial of a venue change and lack of proof that Skilling did anything wrong.

I tend to believe that Skilling will prevail at least in part on appeal; the evidence is too flimsy to withstand scrutiny, and his attorney ably preserved every conceivable error. Likely, Skilling will win a new trial and perhaps agree to a plea of six years (like Fastow and Jamie Olis). As Pogdor and Henning predict, the pendulum will swing away from these kinds of enormous sentences for corporate crime. And once all of this is resolved, again, we'll forget the plight of the petty criminals, crack dealers and video thieves who receive, and will continue to receive, sentences like these every day, which no one ever bothers to mention until a case like Skilling's comes along.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on October 24, 2006 at 03:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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