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Fastow charged with Enron fraud

Fastow on his way to court in Houston
Fastow on his way to court in Houston

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -- Federal prosecutors filed charges against former Enron Corp. CFO Andrew Fastow, allegedly the mastermind behind the complex web of accounting that helped the energy trader obscure its financial condition until its spectacular collapse last year.

In a criminal complaint unsealed in Houston, prosecutors charged Fastow with securities, mail and wire fraud, as well as money laundering and conspiracy, for actions between 1997 and 2001 that officials say helped Enron trick investors, while Fastow and his associates allegedly pocketed millions.

Officials want to freeze $11 million more of Fastow's assets, in addition to the approximately $14 million in assets belonging to the former chief financial officer and his associates that prosecutors have already sought to freeze.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which filed a separate complaint, said it will seek to permanently bar Fastow from serving as an officer of a publicly traded company.

The collapse last December of Enron, once the nation's seventh-largest company, was the first of a series of scandals that eroded investor confidence in corporate accounting and led to passage of the most sweeping reforms of corporate governance in U.S. history.

'Corrupted the business'

"Fastow and his co-conspirators systematically and thoroughly corrupted the business of one of the largest corporations in the world," Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said at a news conference in Washington.

Another Justice Department official, Andrew Weissmann, said Fastow was not cooperating with investigators, and Fastow's attorney said he would fight the charges in court.

"Now that he is charged, Andy Fastow welcomes the opportunity to prove the truth about Enron," John Keker said at a brief news conference after Fastow's court appearance.

Keker added that Enron executives, attorneys and accountants praised and approved all of Fastow's activities at Enron, raising the possibility that he could implicate former Enron CEOs Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay.

Both men have told investigators they were unaware of the off-balance-sheet partnerships Fastow established.

Other charges to come

Officials said other charges could be forthcoming, though they would not identify the executives who would be charged.

"Our lawsuit today is a message to all who think that they can get away with defrauding investors," SEC Enforcement Division Director Stephen M. Cutler said. "No matter how sophisticated or complex their schemes might be, we will figure it out, we will pursue them, and we will make them answer for their wrongdoing."

The charges unveiled against Fastow Wednesday will not go to trial. The government said its investigation is ongoing, with hundreds of interviews still to be made, and prosecutors will present their case to a grand jury later and ask it to indict Fastow. The government has 30 days in which to seek an indictment based on the criminal complaint.

Any charges arising in a grand jury indictment will go to trial, and Fastow could face more than 140 years in prison if convicted of those charges, according to Weissmann.

Weissmann would not comment about why the government chose to file a criminal complaint rather than seek a grand jury indictment right away, but it could be a sign that prosecutors are trying to reach some kind of plea agreement with Fastow.

The government's complaint also alleges that an unnamed "financial institution" helped Enron enter a sham transaction that boosted its earnings by $12 million in 1999.

The unnamed institution -- apparently Merrill Lynch, based on reports in July by congressional investigators -- allegedly bought power-producing barges based in Nigeria with the understanding that the transaction would effectively be canceled later.

Thompson would not say whether the financial institution was a target of the Justice Department investigation.

Fastow, 40, surrendered at the Houston FBI building earlier Wednesday morning and later emerged in handcuffs, accompanied by bureau agents. He was taken to the federal courthouse in downtown Houston, where prosecutors charged him.

Free on bond

A federal judge allowed Fastow to go free on $5 million bond, secured by his home in Houston, a vacation home in Galveston, his parents' home in Houston, property in Vermont, and $3 million in cash.

The source of that collateral is not traceable to any alleged criminal activity, according to the Justice Department. Weissmann said Fastow and his wife surrendered their passports a month ago.

Justice Department officials said they have already recovered about $12 million held by former Fastow protege Michael Kopper, so far the only former Enron executive to submit a plea in the government's ongoing investigation of the company's collapse.

Kopper pleaded guilty on Aug. 21 to money-laundering and fraud charges and agreed to cooperate with authorities, helping prosecutors to close in on higher-ranking executives.

In June, former Enron auditor Arthur Andersen LLP was convicted of obstructing justice for destroying documents during an SEC investigation. Former Andersen partner David Duncan pleaded guilty to similar charges in April, and his cooperation with the government helped doom Andersen.

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