Enron Style

Jeffrey Skilling’s trim haircut gives him a choirboy demeanor. When it was longer and less coiffed, he looked more rebellious.

Steve Ueckert, Houston Chronicle

Prosecutor John Hueston’s American-flag pin sends a subliminal message that he’s on the side of truth and justice.

Mayra Beltran, Houston Chronicle

Enron defendants, prosecutors fashion conservative attire

By Clifford Pugh
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

First glance into U.S. District Judge Sim Lake’s courtroom at the start of the Enron trial: There are sooooo many dark suits that it looks like a funeral is about to begin.

In the early days of the biggest trial to hit Houston in years, the dress code is noticeably nondescript. No double-breasted suits. No handkerchiefs in the front pocket. No black trench coats. No oversize Rolexes or pinky rings. The only jewelry: simple wedding bands.

During Tuesday’s opening arguments, the most stylishly dressed people were in the jury box. One female juror with closely cropped hair looked fashionable in a black turtleneck and tan blazer. A male juror was in a brown argyle sweater, and other jurors in plum, rose and light green brightened the drab courtroom.

Note to prosecutors and the defense team:

This is a jury that cares about appearances.

Vogue magazine will likely never do a spread on “courthouse chic.” Even so, what defendants, their families and attorneys on both sides of any important case wear can send subtle signals to the jury and even affect a trial’s outcome, according to experts.

“Greed is one of the things this trial is about. You don’t want to play into that image,” says Howard Varinsky, a veteran jury consultant who advised prosecutors of Martha Stewart and Scott Peterson. “You don’t want to create disbelief, but you want to get rid of the flash – the ‘rich white people’s bling.’ You want to reek of ‘class’ and not ‘slick.’ ”

Appearing daily in a dark business suit, with a light blue shirt and red tie, defendant Kenneth Lay is dressing for the courtroom in much the same way he did for the Enron boardroom when he headed the one-time energy giant. (Our only advice: Get a haircut. Lay’s wispy hair sticks out in back in all the wrong places.)

Wearing dark pants outfits during the first two days of the trial, Lay’s wife, Linda, seemed almost invisible. She brightened up a bit Wednesday in a pale-blue jacket worn with black slacks.

The Lays’ look is affluent – their clothes obviously did not come from Wal-Mart – but not overly ostentatious.

“I think they’re consciously being conservative, but they’re being themselves,” says Helen Perry, a Houston image consultant who taught Enron employees how to dress for success in 1999. “They’re very classic. They look like old money, which they are.”

In Perry’s view, former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who is charged with 31 counts of conspiracy, fraud and insider trading, has had more of a makeover. She believes he was wise to trim “that little flip off the back of his hair” before the trial. It communicated a more rebellious attitude; now he takes on more of a “choirboy” demeanor.

She also finds it odd that Skilling wore a green tie on the day of jury selection, because the color is associated with money – something Enron defendants might not want the jury to dwell on. “It’s not your typical power tie,” she says.

During opening arguments, Skilling was supported by both his wife, Rebecca Carter, and ex-wife, Sue Skilling. Both wore somber, two-piece outfits that looked expensive though not couture.

Sartorially speaking, Enron task force prosecutor John Hueston took a different tack. An American-flag pin was on prominent display in the lapel of his navy suit when he told jurors, “We represent the United States of America.” The pin subliminally reinforced Hueston’s contention that he was on the side of truth, justice and the American way.

As in most high-profile cases, the defense team’s suits looked nicer than those of government prosecutors who don’t rake in the big bucks. Skilling’s lawyer, Dan Petrocelli, has another advantage: He has a head of hair that most middle-aged men would kill for.

But does it matter what the lawyers wear? Probably not. While jurors note how defendants dress, in most post-trial surveys they say they don’t much care about how the lawyers look.

“You see attorneys dress like Columbo and attorneys that reek of money and success. Neither matter,” Varinsky says. “Jurors look past that. What they care about is the professionalism of the lawyer.”

With the Enron trial barely under way, there’s plenty of time left for fashion blunders.

Houston courthouse observers recall that former Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith dressed conservatively at the start of her probate fight in 2001 to secure a chunk of her late husband’s fortune. But as the trial progressed, her courtroom wardrobe grew more eye-catching.

And when she had a meltdown on the stand in a celebrated confrontation with lawyer Rusty Hardin a few months later, she was wearing a pink top emblazoned with the word “Spoiled.” The encounter effectively sealed her fate; the jury awarded her nothing.

Yet Smith will get another day in court when her probate case is argued before the U.S. Supreme Court Feb. 28. Observers are already wondering what she will wear.

Perry’s red-letter day at the Enron trial will come when Andrew Fastow testifies. Of all the Enron principals, she believes the disgraced executive wins the prize for sartorial excellence.

“He must be a perfect 42 or 44 long, with salt-and-pepper hair and chiseled features. He could be GQ-perfect,” she says. “But taste in sartorial splendor has never been a shortcoming on the part of Enron executives. It would be a shame to trade in all those great threads for prison garb. But then, the whole thing’s a shame, isn’t it?”

clifford.pugh@chron.com

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