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Lay and Skilling's fate goes to jury

Ex-Enron leaders face prison time

HOUSTON -- The question of whether Enron Corp. founder Kenneth Lay and former chief executive Jeffrey Skilling are crooks and liars in what a prosecutor deemed a ''historic case" was left in the hands of a jury yesterday.

The panel of eight women and four men in the blockbuster fraud and conspiracy trial began deliberations with one last plea from a prosecutor to hold the defendants accountable for hiding the company's financial problems in a web of lies, as the government alleges.

''I'm asking you to send a message that it's not all right. You can't buy justice. You have to earn it," Sean Berkowitz, director of the Justice Department's Enron Task Force, told jurors before they retired to a secluded room to reach a verdict.

Enron's 2001 collapse is one of the most sweeping corporate scandals in US history. More than $60 billion in market value, almost $2.1 billion in pension plans, and 5,600 jobs were lost in its fall.

Skilling faces 28 counts of fraud, conspiracy, insider trading and lying to auditors, while Lay faces six counts of fraud and conspiracy. Both face lengthy prison terms if convicted on all counts.

The government alleges both were so bent on maintaining Wall Street's adoration that they lied repeatedly about Enron's financial health when they knew accounting schemes inflated profit and hid hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and bad news.

Skilling and Lay each spent more than a week on the witness stand proclaiming their innocence. They were the stars of the 29 defense witnesses, assailing the government for fabricating crimes in a mission to make someone pay for the suffering of employees and investors.

Berkowitz dismissed that notion yesterday. .

''This isn't Hollywood, ladies and gentlemen. We didn't make this up," Berkowitz said.

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