Houston A former top executive in Enron Corp.'s finance division pleaded guilty Wednesday to money laundering and wire fraud, becoming the first to be convicted in the aftermath of the former energy behemoth's implosion last year.
Michael Kopper, 37, was managing director of Enron Global Finance under former chief financial officer Andrew Fastow. He quit the company months before its collapse to run one of several partnerships created by Fastow that have been blamed for the company's failure.
As part of his agreement to cooperate with the government, he agreed to surrender $12 million in illegally obtained assets.
In his pleading, Kopper said his activities were conducted under the direction of Fastow and in some cases in concert with Fastow. He said that in at least two of the transactions he kicked back money to Fastow.
Kopper's cooperation represents a potential watershed in the investigation, given his knowledge of Enron's innermost workings. It also is a drastic shift from February when he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify before Congress.
"Michael has admitted that he has misused his position at Enron to enrich himself and others, and in so doing, violated his duties as an Enron employee," David Howard, Kopper's attorney, said in a statement.
Kopper made no comment.
Kopper remains free after posting $5 million bond set by U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr.
Sentencing was set for April 4, 2003. Kopper could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison and fined up to double the amount determined to have been fraudulently gained. That could amount to millions of dollars.
The government also said Wednesday it was seeking the return of about $23 million in illegally obtained money from other people, including about $12.8 million in accounts held by Fastow and his family.
Investigators are looking into whether Enron managers knew the network of partnerships largely backed by Enron stock was being used to hide debt and inflate profits.