December 21, 2004
Mistrial in Westar Energy Prosecution
The prosecution of former Westar CEO David Wittig and Executive VP Douglas Lake ended in a mistrial after a seven week trial and more than six days of deliberations. Wittig and Lake were charged with wire fraud, conspiracy, accounting violations, and money laundering. The case, which drew national attention during the collapse of Enron and other large corporations, involved allegations that Wittig and Lake treated Westar as, essentially, a personal piggy bank to fund lavish personal expenses. Wittig bought and began to refurbish the Alf Landon mansion in Topeka, and his free-spending style contrasted rather sharply with the staid culture of the Kansas state capital. The jurors did reach a verdict on the money laundering counts, but because they were deadlocked on the substantive violations that serve as the basis for the alleged monely laundering, the prosecutor and defense counsel agreed to a complete mistrial, which U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson ordered. An article in the Kansas City Star (Dec. 21) speculates that the jurors had reached a not guilty verdict on the money laundering charges: "At Robinson's direction, the jury foreman did not say whether the jury found Wittig and Lake guilty or not guilty of counts 23 through 39. Those counts charged the defendants with money laundering. But it's likely the jury acquitted the men on those counts because they depended on guilty findings on the first 22 counts. Count 40 of the indictment, which sought the forfeiture of Wittig's and Lake's assets, wasn't reached because it could not be taken up until the jury reached a decision on guilt."
Although the U.S. Attorney's Office has not said whether it will retry the case, given the national headlines the prosecution has received and the significant resources committed to the case already, it is much more likely than not the government will try the case again. The interesting question will be whether either (or both) of the defendants agrees to a plea bargain. At this point, that could be the least costly option for both sides. (ph)
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