UPDATED 12:42 p.m. EDT: Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who is serving a 24-year prison term for his role in the energy giant's epic collapse, could get out of prison early under an agreement being discussed by his attorneys and the Justice Department, CNBC has learned.
Skilling, who was convicted in 2006 of conspiracy, fraud and insider trading, has served just over six years. It is not clear how much his sentence would be shortened under the deal.
A federal appeals panel ruled in 2009 that the original sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Sim Lake was too harsh, but a re-sentencing for the 59-year-old Skilling has repeatedly been delayed, first as the appeals process played out, and then as the negotiations for a deal progressed.
Those talks had been a closely guarded secret, but Thursday the Justice Department quietly issued a notice to victims required under federal law:
"The Department of Justice is considering entering into a sentencing agreement with the defendant in this matter," the notice reads. "Such a sentencing agreement could restrict the parties and the Court from recommending, arguing for, or imposing certain sentences or conditions of confinement. It could also restrict the parties from challenging certain issues on appeal, including the sentence ultimately imposed by the Court at a future sentencing hearing."
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. Skilling's longtime defense attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Lake, who imposed the original sentence, would have the final say in the sentence. The posting of the notice, however, suggests the parties have some indication he will go along. Lake held a private conference call with attorneys for both sides last month.
For Skilling, who has consistently maintained his innocence, an agreement would end a long ordeal, although his conviction on 19 criminal counts would likely stand. The government, meanwhile, would avoid a potentially messy court battle over alleged misconduct by the Justice Department's elite Enron Task Force appointed in the wake of the company's sudden failure in 2001.
Skilling's attorneys had planned to move for a new trial based on that alleged misconduct. Under a sentencing agreement, that motion would likely be dropped.
Skilling, who developed Enron's business model as an "asset-light" energy trading company, rose to CEO in early 2001, only to resign six months later. Soon after that, Enron began its sudden plunge into what was at the time the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.