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Ex-Enron accountant makes deal

Causey is expected to plead guilty, testify against Lay, Skilling

HOUSTON -- Enron's former chief accounting officer, Richard Causey, has struck a plea bargain with federal prosecutors and will avoid going to trial with the fallen energy company's two top executives, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.

Causey was expected to plead guilty today to one or more of the 34 criminal charges pending against him, the person close to the case said yesterday on condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the discussions.

Causey, 45, agreed to testify against his former bosses, Enron Corp. founder Kenneth Lay and former chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, in exchange for a much lesser prison sentence than he would receive if convicted on all counts. The trial is scheduled to begin next month, but a delay is considered likely since defense attorneys would want more time to prepare for the government's new witness.

Causey is charged with fraud, conspiracy, insider trading, lying to auditors and money laundering for allegedly knowing about or participating in a series of schemes to fool investors into believing Enron was financially healthy. The company imploded in late 2001 amid disclosures of complicated financing schemes that gave the appearance of success.

US District Judge Sim Lake has scheduled a change-of-plea hearing for today. Causey pleaded not guilty to the charges against him when he was indicted in January 2004.

Lay's lead attorney, Michael Ramsey, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did one of Causey's lawyers, Reid Weingarten.

Causey's plea and agreement to cooperate with prosecutors is a departure from the unified defense he, Skilling and Lay have shown for nearly two years.

Daniel Petrocelli, Skilling's lead lawyer, said earlier yesterday he planned to ask Lake to postpone the Jan. 17 trial for up to two months if Causey struck a deal with the government. The additional time would allow his team and that representing Lay to prepare for yet another key prosecution witness.

Causey could be more damaging to Lay and Skilling than former Enron finance chief Andrew Fastow, who joined the government's cadre of cooperating witnesses when he pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy in January 2004. Unlike his former peer, Causey didn't skim millions of dollars for himself from shady deals and therefore would bring less baggage to the witness stand.

''While they were preparing to deal with Fastow, Causey is another matter," said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor. ''Fastow has been so demonized by the books and media accounts of the Enron collapse that he is an enticing target for the defense teams."

Causey would become the 16th ex-Enron executive to plead guilty and agree to cooperate with the government.

Enron, once the seventh-largest company in the country, crumbled into bankruptcy in December 2001 upon revelations of hidden debt and inflated profits that sent investors running and obliterated Wall Street confidence. Thousands of workers lost their jobs and investors lost billions in the first of a string of corporate scandals that prompted stiffer white-collar penalties and more rigorous regulatory scrutiny.

Causey was indicted about a week after Fastow cut a deal with prosecutors and agreed to help the government pursue former top Enron executives.

Skilling was added to the indictment in February 2004, followed by Lay in July that year.

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