Three British bankers were extradited to Texas on Thursday to face Enron Corp.-related charges filed more than four years ago in a case that sparked a political storm over a treaty used to bring them across the Atlantic Ocean.
The trio arrived Thursday afternoon, in custody of U.S. marshals, and were transported to a federal detention center in downtown Houston to await their first appearance in court Friday.
Their years-long extradition battle ended earlier this year when they lost the last of a string of appeals. The trio, former executives at Greenwich NatWest, a unit of Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC, became a cause celebre in Britain because of the controversial legislation used to pursue their extradition.
David Bermingham, Gary Mulgrew and Giles Darby are accused of colluding with former Enron Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow in a secret financial scam to enrich themselves at their employers’ expense. They have consistently denied any wrongdoing.
They were initially charged in June 2002, just a few months into the Justice Department’s sweeping investigation of Enron’s December 2001 collapse.
That probe reached its summit in May when a jury convicted company founder Kenneth Lay and former CEO Jeffrey Skilling of perpetuating fraud through lies to investors and employees about the failed energy giant’s financial health. Lay died last week of heart disease, but Skilling faces decades in prison and is to be sentenced Oct. 23.
Enron, once the nation’s seventh-largest company, crumbled into bankruptcy proceedings amid revelations of convoluted finances that hid debt and inflated profits.
Fastow, the architect of myriad fraudulent schemes at Enron, was the government’s most high-profile witness against Lay and Skilling. The initial charges filed against the bankers alerted Fastow and his minions that they were in the government’s crosshairs by noting their involvement in the alleged scam.
Fastow’s former top aide, Michael Kopper, cut a plea deal in August 2002. Fastow was indicted in October that year, and pleaded guilty in January 2004 to two counts of conspiracy. If the bankers go to trial, Fastow and Kopper could testify against them.
The bankers have fought extradition since their April 2004 arrest in London. Their case has garnered heavy interest in Britain, with the BBC broadcasting their plane’s takeoff live from London after they surrendered. But in the United States, it’s a loose end in the investigation.
Both the House of Lords and the House of Commons mounted symbolic debates this week before the three men’s departure to protest Britain’s compliance with a 2003 extradition treaty that has not been ratified by the U.S. Senate. Several legislators lambasted Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government and the American failure to ratify the treaty.
Blair has repeatedly defended the agreement.
“We’ve been let down by our government,” Bermingham said shortly before he boarded the plane for Texas.
On Friday, U.S. Magistrate Stephen Smith in Houston is likely to consider whether to grant bail that would allow the bankers to return to Britain to await trial.
Court records showed that Mulgrew had retained Reid Figel, a Washington, D.C., attorney, who didn’t return calls for comment. It wasn’t clear who would represent Bermingham and Darby.
The men are each charged with seven counts of wire fraud and face a maximum of 35 years in prison if convicted.
Their extradition came a day after a banker who gave evidence to U.S. authorities investigating the case was found dead. The Royal Bank of Scotland identified the dead man as Neil Coulbeck, 53, and said he had no role in approving the transaction at the heart of the U.S. case.
The FBI said Thursday that Coulbeck was one of hundreds of individuals interviewed as part of the investigation into Enron corporate fraud.
“Mr. Coulbeck was considered a witness in the investigation and the interview that took place was voluntary,” the FBI said in a statement issued in Washington, D.C. “He was not considered a suspect in the investigation.”