April 07, 2004
Lea Fastow withdraws plea
Whoa. Things just got exciting again in Enronville.
Lea Fastow could be the first former Enron employee to go to trial after all.
U.S. District Judge David Hittner announced to a crowded courtroom this morning that he would not follow the plea arrangement between the government and Lea Fastow.
The judge would not tell Lea Fastow what his sentence might be. Instead he insisted she decide whether to take his sentence or not. She withdrew her guilty plea and will now be scheduled for a Brownsville trial, with jury selection starting in June.
Fastow had agreed with Enron Task Force prosecutors that she will serve five months in prison and another five months under home confinement. This was part of complex negotiations that led to her husband's guilty plea and his cooperation with prosecutors. The government has said Andrew Fastow's testimony helped indict two former officials including ex-CFO Jeff Skilling and could lead to charges against other top executives.
So, basically, the judge decided he'd go with his own sentence rather than accept the plea, and Lea said "thanks but I'll take my chances at trial". Apparently, she'll need to get an acquittal in order to realistically do better than the plea, and could wind up significantly worse off. Andy Fastow can't back out of his plea, but now he might not be so cooperative as a witness against Skilling and maybe Kenny Boy.
Hold onto your hats, 'cause here we go.
Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 07, 2004 to Enronarama
I hold Judge David Hittner is high regard, having appeared before him many times going back to his stint on the state-court bench many years ago. All my cases before him have been on the civil side, but I can't imagine that anyone who knows him very well or has even checked him out very thoroughly could be very surprised by his refusal to sign on the dotted line even when jointly asked to do so by the prosecution and the defense. He's very much an independent thinker.
Hittner may have integrity, and maybe he was making a statement about not appreciating being pigeonholed into the sentence, but I think he screwed the pooch here.
The justice system is largely built on deals like this. It's something the prosecution and defense can both accept, and which save taxpayer money by avoiding costly trials. Normally I'd say if both sides can agree on a conviction and the sentence, the interests of justice have been adequately served.
However, I believe Hittner can't see the forest through the trees here. Lea Fastow is a very small "prize" in the Enron sweepstakes, one tangentially involved (if at all) and who, it can be claimed, was only snared as leverage against the "big boys" (i.e. Skilling, Lay et al). This pooch-screwing may make Mr. Fastow decide that there's no longer much incentive to testify with damning evidence against those the prosecution really wants to get.
One has to wonder now if the prosecution will agree to bungle Mrs. Fastow's trial to the point where acquittal is all but certain, and in so doing be more assured that Mr. Fastow will sing like a songbird in the trials (and possible future indictments) of those at the top. If she's convicted and locked up for a year and a half, the chances to nail the guys at the top are significantly reduced, all thanks to Judge Hittner.
Perhaps he's just looking at his sense of justice in *this case*, but to use a more extreme example, if giving a burglar nothing but probation would help put a murderer away for life, would you still throw him in jail to "make a point" even if you knew it meant the murderer was more likely to get away with it?