Magazine

The Ones Who Got Away


By Maria Bartiromo If the Enron saga has a truth teller, it's Sherron Watkins, the whistleblowing executive who at least tried to do the right thing. Watkins hasn't been shy about speaking to the media or going on the lecture circuit. But her candor here may surprise you.

Who got away? Who hasn't paid the piper?

Certainly there are some Enron execs, but definitely the banks. Enron could not have done it without all of the lending from the banks. The big deals were with CIBC (BCM) [Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce], Citigroup (C), and JPMorgan (JPM). [They] routinely lent to Enron because [CFO Andrew] Fastow was promising them investment banking deals. [The banks] paid giant fines...but the individuals who worked at the banks still made their bonuses and have their houses in the Hamptons. Then there's [Enron law firm] Vinson & Elkins. They are terminal. They have had rainmaker lawyers leave. They just had a slew of eight-year associates leave. You can't do the compromised level of work that they and [Arthur] Andersen did and think you'll be around in a decade.

What was your reaction to the guilty verdicts for Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling?

A sense of closure that finally the Enron scandal is over, but there is some sadness, too. Not only for Enron being gone and lives being wrecked but also because these two guys don't seem to get it. Ironically, that was always Skilling's line: People didn't understand Enron's business, they just weren't smart enough to get it. Ken Lay's performance on the stand was angry and disdainful of the government. He performed more like Saddam Hussein. After the guilty verdicts were read, Skilling marched out with the "I'm innocent, and I'm going to fight this" [attitude]. But Lay wasn't even ready to post bond. It is just so shocking that he was so convinced of his innocence.

What happened when you first went to Lay? Why did you do it?

I had stumbled across this fraud when I made a job move in the summer of 2001, and I knew that it couldn't be appropriate accounting. So I was trying to leave the company, but within two weeks...Skilling left, and I thought: "Wow this is big...he has been in this job eight months, and now he is leaving." I figured Ken Lay didn't know and if I just told him, maybe there was a chance to come out of this. Here I am telling the guy who was CEO when some of these transactions were hatched: "Hey, these things happened on your watch." It's almost like saying to someone: "I just found out you have been beating your wife. You have to stop." When I think about it, it was really stupid.

A lot of people felt Lay had some distance from the fraud. Is it even conceivable to believe he was innocent?

It is a little bit like the emperor's new clothes in that he wasn't paying attention. Skilling and Fastow were the swindlers, and Lay was the emperor. I don't think [Lay] was involved in creating the fraud yet he lied about it at a critical time.

You have said you are unemployable. What do you mean?

I couldn't get a normal corporate job. There are plenty of people who give me a bear hug, but plenty of others give me that odd handshake. I don't want to come off as a "poor me." I am moving in circles I would have never imagined. Enron became the word for scandal, and the media had all of their villains, and they wanted a hero. So it was fortunate for me. Being the Time Person of the Year is about as hero status as you can get, I guess. There is nothing about my life that I regret, but this has been the most bizarre thing that could have ever happened.

Some people have criticized you because you sold stock knowing there was something wrong. But the rest of the world didn't know. Was that insider trading?

I sold $30,000 worth of stock in August [2001] and some options in late September. I was panicked by 9/11...and about the company. I sold the last block and netted about $17,000. Yes, I had more information than the people buying at the time. Could [the government] have come after me with insider trading charges? Sure, they probably could have.

What's your advice to others who see fraud?

Look out for yourself. I counsel people that you need to find the safety net of another job and leave before you say anything. Also, don't ever do it alone. Then you can't be dismissed as one lone voice. But be ready to lose your job.

Maria Bartiromo is the host of CNBC's Closing Bell


Later, Baby
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