updated 11/28/2007 7:56:00 PM ET 2007-11-29T00:56:00

Three British bankers who were set to go to trial for their roles in a fraudulent scheme with former Enron Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow changed their pleas to guilty Wednesday.

David Bermingham, Giles Darby and Gary Mulgrew had originally pleaded not guilty to seven counts of wire fraud for allegedly colluding with Fastow in a secret financial scam in 2000 to enrich themselves at their employers’ expense. They were set to go on trial in January.

But during a court hearing before U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr., each pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.

“By changing their pleas today, Gary, Giles and David have fully accepted responsibility for the significant lapse of judgment that led to the filing of these charges,” Reid Figel, Mulgrew’s attorney, said outside the federal courthouse, reading a joint statement issued by lawyers for the bankers.

The three former executives at Greenwich NatWest, a unit of Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC, became a cause celebre in Britain throughout extradition proceedings that lasted two years.

In the United States, their case is a loose end of an investigation launched after Enron’s 2001 collapse. Charges initially filed against them in 2002 alerted Fastow that he was a target of the government’s investigation into Enron’s downfall.

Officials with the Justice Department praised the job done by investigators in the case.

“Thanks to the hard work of the federal prosecutors and agents from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, these defendants are being held accountable for their actions in a U.S. court of law,” Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher said in a statement.

All three men also agreed to pay restitution to their former employer in the amount of nearly $7.4 million. As part of the plea agreement, the trio also agreed to be subjects of a civil judgment from a British court that will have them pay NatWest another $6.1 million.

Each faces up to five years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000 when sentenced on Feb. 22.

Their attorneys said they will work with prosecutors to see if the bankers can serve all or part of their sentences in Britain. Prosecutor Jonathan Lopez said the three men had the option of applying to be transferred to Britain once in U.S. custody.

The bankers — dubbed the “NatWest Three” — came to Houston in 2000 to concoct a fraudulent scheme with Fastow and his former top aide, Michael Kopper, according to a statement of facts read in court Wednesday.

Greenwich NatWest had invested in a subsidiary of an Enron partnership controlled by Fastow, who was the architect of a myriad of fraudulent Enron schemes that helped fuel its spiral into bankruptcy proceedings.

In early 2000, the bank had valued its interest in the subsidiary at zero, but the three British men knew it actually had significant value.

A company under Kopper’s control purchased the bank’s interest in the subsidiary for $1 million. The bankers paid Kopper $250,000 for an interest in this company. Fastow falsely represented to Enron that the energy company would pay $20 million to Greenwich NatWest for its shares of the subsidiary.

But the $20 million actually went to the British bankers, Fastow and others. The bankers got $7.3 million while Fastow, Kopper and others skimmed about $12.3 million, according to the indictment.

“As set forth in the statement of facts, these defendants failed to inform NatWest about a personal investment offered to them by Andrew Fastow and Michael Kopper,” said the statement from the bankers’ attorneys.

In January 2004, Fastow pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy for his role in Enron’s collapse. The British trio was arrested three months later.

Fastow is serving a six-year sentence in a federal prison in Louisiana. Kopper is serving a three-year, one-month sentence at a facility in Texarkana.

Each of the three British men will remain free on $1 million bonds that have required them to live in the United States pending the resolution of their cases.

Enron, once the nation’s seventh-largest company, crumbled into bankruptcy in December 2001 after years of accounting tricks could no longer hide billions in debt or make failing ventures appear profitable. The collapse wiped out thousands of jobs, more than $60 billion in market value and more than $2 billion in pension plans.

Enron founder Kenneth Lay and former chief executive Jeffrey Skilling were convicted last year for their roles in the company’s collapse. Skilling is serving a sentence of more than 24 years. Lay’s convictions for conspiracy, fraud and other charges were wiped out after he died of heart disease last year.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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