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The Skills of Skilling

HIS PUBLIC DISPLAYS OF HUMILITY COULD BACKFIRE.

From the moment a high-profile trial begins, pundits, academics and legal experts begin to fashion theories as to where the prosecution or the defense went wrong. In the Martha Stewart case, it is generally agreed that the “I’m too smart to have done some­thing this dumb” defense did not play well with the jury, who resented the implied condescension. In the O.J. Simpson case, it was the unfortunate business about a blood-spattered glove that sent the prosecution to defeat.

In the case of deposed Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, I am willing to lay odds that if things turn out badly for him, it will be in large part because of his highly publicized pre­trial image massaging.

In the days leading up to the Kenneth Lay-Jeffrey Skilling trial, the media incessantly pumped out stories regarding the attitudes of prospective jurors. Due to the financial and emo­tional devastation inflicted on Hous­ton by Enron’s implosion, there was some reason to believe that Lay and Skilling would have a hard time get­ting a fair trial in the area. Implicit was the assumption that even the most cloistered, unsophisticated juror would have heard something about Lay and Skilling’s alleged crimes.

But these were not the only stories to appear in the media. In what must be construed as a cunning effort to depict himself as a lunch pail kind of guy caught in a web of intrigue, Skilling let it be known that before the trial he had sometimes worked as much as 40 hours a week swinging a mop for Habitat for Humanity as part of a deal worked out with a Houston magistrate as penance for objection­able behavior while under the influ­ence of alcohol. What’s more, he had enjoyed the experience.

Simultaneously, The New York Times chronicled other Skilling adventures in the manual-labor realm, reporting that he had, with his very own hands, constructed the office his legal team would use in his defense. It was all very touching, high­ly moving, beguilingly proletarian.

The problem with this approach is that it sends confusing messages to prospective jurors. Showy attempts to portray oneself as just one of the guys can appear cynical and calculated. (Remember Mike Milken’s misbe­gotten foray to Shea Stadium with those Gotham tykes?) More to the point, if you are spending tens of mil­lions of dollars hiring the best legal counsel to prove that your seeming­ly extravagant financial machinations all complied with generally accept­ed accounting practices, it seems like you could have easily sprung for another few thousand to have some workmen come in and build your defense team’s law office.

Skilling’s construction worker masquerade was obviously intended to warm the cockles of the public’s heart. Here was an ordinary guy who found himself in big trouble, and was now getting back to the simple things in life. Alas, this sounds awful­ly similar to the disgraced lobbyist who returns to the study of the Scrip­tures, or the inept money manager who wants to spend more time with his family now that his clients have been annihilated. It doesn’t sound even vaguely authentic.

One reason Jeffrey Skilling is so despised in Houston, if not every­where else, is because Enron’s im­plosion cost working people their jobs. Well, by the looks of it, Jeffrey Skilling is still costing working peo­ple their jobs. By hanging particle board and ostentatiously shopping at Home Depot for plastic washing machine pipes, Skilling is literally taking away work from the folks who do those jobs for a living. Such pub­lic gestures of humility also stick in the craw because once again an Enron fat cat is taking food off the working man’s table.

The moral of the story: If you’re going to spend millions of dollars on the best lawyers, don’t try to garner public sympathy by impersonating a working stiff. Here’s hoping for Skilling’s sake that nobody on that jury works in construction. Other­wise, he could be going up the riv­er forever.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.