A judge Friday refused to muzzle out-of-court statements related to the fraud and conspiracy case against Enron founder Kenneth Lay and...

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HOUSTON — A judge Friday refused to muzzle out-of-court statements related to the fraud and conspiracy case against Enron founder Kenneth Lay and former chief executive Jeffrey Skilling after Lay’s speech Tuesday lambasting government tactics in pursuing him.

U.S. District Judge Sim Lake denied prosecutors’ request for a gag order at a hearing Friday that was scheduled before Lay spoke Tuesday to Houston business and academic leaders.

Lay, Skilling and former top Enron accountant Richard Causey are scheduled for trial Jan. 17.

Lake himself brought up the possibility of a gag order last month in anticipation of heavy publicity stemming from the blockbuster trial to emerge from the Justice Department’s nearly 4-year-old investigation of Enron’s 2001 collapse.

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But the judge decided against a gag order for the second time this month, saying Friday that Lay’s speech was “a drop in the bucket” among news stories, books and movies spawned by the Enron scandal.

Prosecutors had supported it, but the defense teams didn’t.

“If this were the only thing ever said about Enron in the media, this might be a concern,” Lake said.

Lake added that he will monitor public statements during the trial and may revisit the issue of a gag order.

In Tuesday’s speech, Lay issued a plea for former Enron employees to defy a “wave of terror” by federal prosecutors and help him fight criminal charges.

In court papers filed Thursday, prosecutors said Lay “made public statements regarding the credibility and testimony of potential witnesses in this case and commented on the motivation of the government in prosecuting him,” and that a gag order “is now appropriate.”

Lay accused the government of bullying critical witnesses so they wouldn’t talk to the defense teams for fear of being indicted or getting harsh prison sentences if they had already pleaded guilty to Enron-related crimes.

“The prosecutor becomes a human guillotine when given the power to charge an individual, act as judge and jury, as well as executioner if a ‘cooperating’ witness does not assist the prosecutor as the prosecutor believes the ‘cooperating witness’ should,” Lay said in his speech.

Prosecutors have repeatedly denied intimidating anyone, and Lake so far has been unmoved by the allegations.