US federal prosecutors plan to bring criminal charges against Jeffrey Skilling, the former chief executive of Enron, as the probe finally reaches the very top of the Houston-based energy group.
Details of the charges could be revealed by next Thursday, people close to the case said, though they warned that delays are possible. Mr Skilling is expected to contest any allegations that he took part in orchestrating or concealing one of the most shocking of corporate frauds.
Investigators have shown particular interest in Mr Skilling’s involvement with Enron’s broadband division, where several ex-executives have already been charged with securities fraud.
They have scrutinised a conference in January 2001 when Mr Skilling made bold predictions about plans to transmit content directly to customers although it is alleged Enron executives knew the technology was not operational, and that a crucial partnership with the Blockbuster video chain had unravelled.
Mr Skilling may also be vulnerable over financial and accounting irregularities that arose from the 2001 California energy crisis.
Enron filed for bankruptcy in December 2001. Soon after, it began to emerge that it had been run fraudulently.
The Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission have brought a record number of cases against individuals and companies for improper accounting and fraud.
But their failure to snare Mr Skilling, Ken Lay, Enron’s chairman, and Bernie Ebbers, founder of WorldCom, has been cited as evidence that they are not doing enough. The authorities would only say they were continuing to investigate, and it is possible that some of the names most mentioned may never be charged.
But Mr Skilling’s day in court came much closer with January’s guilty plea by Andrew Fastow, Enron’s former chief financial officer, who agreed to a 10-year jail term and forfeiture of $30m.
Mr Skilling’s lawyers were not available, and the SEC and the Department of Justice do not comment on individual cases. Reports that the DoJ may indict Mr Skilling next week appeared in the Houston Chronicle.