- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 29, 2006

Charles Prestwood, a former pipeline operator who worked for three decades with Enron Corp. and its predecessor companies, still holds on to the hope that he will recover the $1.3 million in retirement savings he lost when the energy giant imploded.

In the meantime, he wonders how long he will be able to hold on to the three acres where he lives, a half-hour outside Houston. He examines household bills as they arrive, wondering which he can afford to pay this week.

“I’ve sold about everything I got,” the 67-year-old retiree said. “I’ve sold a couple of my guns. I’ve sold my [other] property. I have to have a little extra money to subsidize Social Security.”

Like many others of the thousands of people who lost jobs and large investments in the Enron accounting scandal, Mr. Prestwood will be watching closely when former executives Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey Skilling go on trial today in Houston.

Mr. Prestwood has heart rhythm problems, but he still hopes to attend at least one day of the trial. He makes no secret of the outcome for which he is hoping.

“Put them behind bars where they’re supposed to be, that’s what I think.”

Mr. Prestwood and other former employees have lived hand-to-mouth since the 2001 Enron implosion. Some were fortunate enough to have more diversified retirement plans, or young enough to rebuild what they lost. Some have published books about the scandal, and others have found new careers entirely.

Both Mr. Lay and Mr. Skilling have pleaded not guilty, and Mr. Lay has mounted an unusual public defense, portraying himself as the victim of overzealous Enron prosecutors and insisting he was unaware that his subordinates were committing crimes.

Sherri Saunders, who was laid off from her job as an executive secretary at Enron after 24 years there and at predecessor companies, recalled the “sigh of relief” employees felt when Mr. Lay took the reins from Mr. Skilling in August 2001.

“Everyone thought, Ken’s back in control,” she said. “He was selling us down the river.”

Ms. Saunders, 58, who lost about $1 million in retirement and has worked for four years since at a Houston hospital, says she thinks Mr. Skilling is guilty. As for Mr. Lay, she said, “I don’t know if they can put him in jail for stupidity.

“He was so busy being Mr. United Way, Mr. Build the Enron Field, Boys Club of America, that I just don’t think he was minding the store.

“I can hardly wait to see both those guys in orange,” she said, referring to prison jumpsuits.

In Henderson, Texas, a few hours outside Houston, Cathy Peterson sits at her computer each morning and checks the Internet for news of the upcoming trial. She plans to follow it closely.

She does her reading inside a 900-square-foot home that her brother-in-law bought for her a couple of years ago. Mrs. Peterson’s husband, Bill, a former information systems analyst at Enron, died of melanoma in 2002.

Mrs. Peterson is fond of comparing Enron to the Titanic and thinks of Mr. Lay and Mr. Skilling as captains of the vessel. Even if they were ignorant of what was happening at the company, she says, they should be held responsible.

She said she thinks convictions would serve as a “a permanent gravestone marking the consequences of corporate greed.”

Mrs. Peterson has published two books, the last titled “Flashlight Walking,” to tell her family’s Enron story and in hopes of inspiring others dealing with adversity. She is working on a third.

Thousands of former Enron employees are involved in class-action lawsuits seeking to recover some of their retirement savings, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged in settlements. But the workers acknowledge the attorneys must be paid first, and few are optimistic they will see anything but a small fraction of their original nest eggs.

In any case, the outcome of the trial likely will have little impact on those class-action payments, said Rod Jordan, a former Enron project manager who heads a coalition of more than 1,100 former Enron workers.

“Probably the typical ex-Enroner has mixed emotions about the guilt or innocence of Lay and Skilling,” he said. “They just want to get the truth out.”

The trial also should return a spotlight to the employee culture at Enron, once a high-flying energy corporation that ranked seventh on the Fortune 500 before the accounting scandal.

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