Wittig, Lake plead innocent in Westar case

? David Wittig and another former Westar Energy Inc. executive pleaded innocent in federal court Tuesday to every charge in a 40-count indictment that accuses the two men with trying to loot the state’s largest electric company while its stock sank and its debt soared.

Wittig, Westar’s former chief executive officer, and Douglas T. Lake, its former executive vice president and chief strategic officer, also beat back prosectors efforts to force them to account for money raised from the recent sale of any personal assets.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rich Hathaway said Wittig may have sold $10 million in various assets, and Lake $295,000 in Westar stock. The sales suggested that both men might be a flight risk and could be trying to place assets out of the reach of the government, he said.

U.S. Magistrate James O’Hara said federal law didn’t give him the authority to require such an accounting, and he didn’t infer from the sale that the two men were trying to hide the assets from prosecutors.

Furthermore, O’Hara said, he could understand why defense attorneys would be nervous abut having to provide such information.

“It’s kind of like the dangling thread on a cheap suit,” O’Hara said. “I can understand why the defense would not want to engage in that unraveling process.”

Prosecutors have accused the two men conspired to take millions of dollars from Westar while Wittig was the company’s top executive and while Lake served as its No. 2 official. The indictment said the two men “perverted corporate programs for their own personal profit,” then tried to cover up their actions, partly through intimidation and spying.

Westar’s debt grew to $3.6 billion by the end of 2002, and Westar’s stock dropped from $44 a share to below $9.

Lake’s attorney has suggested the criminal case stems from an ongoing employment dispute between Wittig, Lake and Westar over $102 million in past compensation and future payments that could be owed the men under contracts with the company.

Wittig, 48, of Topeka, and Lake, 53, of New Canaan, Conn., face one count each of conspiracy, 14 counts of circumventing internal accounting controls and falsifying books and records, 10 counts of submitting false statements to federal agencies, eight counts of wire fraud and six counts of using criminally derived property in monetary transactions.

The indictment’s final count contends the two men should be forced to return $33 million in compensation they received from Westar, as well as all stock and proceeds from a special program allowing them to convert life insurance benefits into cash.

In addition, prosecutors hope to seize Wittig’s home in Topeka, formerly the residence of the late Gov. Alf Landon, nearly $2 million worth of interior furnishings, and Wittig’s Ferrari, worth nearly $230,000.

Wittig, who joined Westar in 1995 and became CEO in 1998, resigned in November 2002 to defend himself against separate federal charges involving a $1.5 million personal loan he received in 2001. He was convicted earlier this year and his sentencing is set for Feb. 27.

Wittig hired Lake in 1998, and Lake left the company in December 2002. Westar’s board of directors said then he was on indefinite administrative leave, but Lake’s attorneys have since said he was fired.

In early trading on the New York Stock Exchange, shares of Westar were down 3 cent, to $20.31.

For more on this story, see the 6News reports at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. and pick up a copy of Wednesday’s Journal-World.