After nearly eight years of expensive prosecution, it was frustrating Friday to see federal charges against two former Westar Energy executives simply dismissed.
Federal prosecutors gave no reason on Friday for the motion they filed to dismiss the indictments against David Wittig and Douglas Lake, who were accused of bilking millions of dollars from the company they led. On Monday U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom confirmed speculation that the motion was prompted by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that undercut the prosecution’s case. The charges were dismissed without prejudice, which means they could be refiled, but Grissom’s comments make that seem unlikely.
The first trial for Wittig and Lake ended with a hung jury in December 2004. In a second trial, six months later, the two were found guilty on several counts related to their looting of Westar and were ordered to pay millions of dollars in restitution. That never happened because the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals threw out their convictions, citing a lack of evidence and problems with a ruling and jury instructions.
Key players in the drama, as well as many in the public, were stunned by Friday’s dismissal. Attorneys for the defendants, predictably, were elated.
An attorney for Lake contended, “This case should not have happened.” And yet, the defendants’ opulent lifestyle, coupled with a rapid decline in Westar finances under their leadership couldn’t help but make the public think otherwise.
Westar officials indicated Friday that the company will continue to pursue civil claims against the two through an arbitration hearing that had been put on hold by the criminal proceedings. Westar owes it to its customers and stockholders to pursue that case vigorously. As Westar executive vice president Jim Ludwig noted, Westar and its stockholders “have borne the damages and expenses from this process” but have received no restitution.
There may have been good reasons for federal prosecutors to drop the indictments on Friday, but Westar also has good reasons to pursue civil claims to hold Wittig and Lake accountable for their actions.