(Photo: Pat Sullivan, AP)
Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling - serving a 24-year prison term for his role in the once-mighty energy giant's collapse - was resentenced to 14 years Friday as part of a court-ordered reduction and a separate agreement with prosecutors.
The reduction brought a long-delayed conclusion to one of the most notorious U.S. financial scandals, and means the disgraced executive could leave prison as early as 2017.
Skilling has been in prison since 2006, when he was sentenced to 24 years by U.S. District Judge Sim Lake in Houston. But a federal appeals court vacated his prison term in 2009, ruling that a sentencing guideline had been improperly applied. That meant a reduction of as much as nine years.
Skilling's resentencing was delayed for years as he unsuccessfully sought to overturn his convictions, including appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. He dropped his right to pursue appeals any further in exchange for a sentence-reduction deal reached with federal prosecutors last month.
Skilling, who under an agreement will forfeit more than $40 million to Enron's thousands of financial victims, declined to make any statement during Friday's resentencing.
Lead defense attorney Daniel Petrocelli said with the prison time already served and other reductions, Skilling could be released in four years.
"We are relieved that Jeff can now look forward to the day when he can come home to his family and friends," said Petrocelli.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman said the sentence reduction still "imposes significant punishment" while ending years of litigation and precluding Skilling from ever challenging his conviction or sentence.
"With today's court action, victims of Skilling's crimes will finally receive more than $40 million that he owes them," said Raman in a statement issued after the proceeding.
Enron's collapse put more than 5,000 people out of work, wiped out more than $2 billion in employee pensions and rendered worthless $60 billion in Enron stock. Its aftershocks were felt across the city and the U.S. energy industry.
Even with the reduced sentence, Skilling's prison term is still the longest of those involved in the Enron scandal. He was the highest-ranking executive to be punished. Enron founder Kenneth Lay's similar convictions were vacated after he died of heart disease less than two months after his trial.
Skilling, 59, was convicted in 2006 on 19 counts of conspiracy, securities fraud, insider trading and lying to auditors for his role in the downfall of Houston-based Enron. The company, once the seventh-largest in the U.S., went bankrupt under the weight of years of illicit business deals and accounting tricks.
Once hailed as a financial visionary, Skilling was vilified by many former Enron employees for denying any wrongdoing.
The Supreme Court said in 2010 that one of Skilling's convictions was flawed when it sharply curtailed the use of the "honest services" fraud law - a short addendum to the federal mail and wire fraud statute that makes it illegal to scheme to deprive investors of "the intangible right to honest services."
The high court ruled that prosecutors can use the law only in cases where evidence shows the defendant accepted bribes or kickbacks, and because Skilling's misconduct entailed no such things, he did not conspire to commit honest services fraud.
The Supreme Court told a lower court to decide whether he deserved a new trial; the lower court said no.
Contributing: Associated Press Business Writer Juan A. Lozano in Houston