There was the sight of Wittig, former Master of the Universe, entering the courtroom wearing orange prison togs and ankle cuffs.
The defendants' loved ones clutched Kleenex and cursed the fates. A woman speaking to Lake during a break compared the jury, which convicted him and his high-flying partner of fraud and conspiracy, with the august body that let O.J. walk. "They should be ashamed of themselves," she said of the Kansas jurors, shaking her head.
There were the ridiculous pleas for leniency. Defense attorney Paula Junghans said Wittig was a "fundamentally good but ... imperfect human being." Uh, Junghans' "imperfect" client was found guilty of 39 felonies and ordered to forfeit $44 million to the electric utility he'd looted. Before a grand jury caught up with them, Wittig and Lake engineered absurd compensation packages for themselves as the company's dividends shrank and its debt ballooned. The Strip guesses Wittig would have had to punch a grandmother in the stomach for Junghans to concede that he was troubled.
Yep, Enron on the Prairie provided a lot of great moments. As Wittig's attorney begged for mercy, this reportin' rump sat in the press row and recalled that, during the first trial (which ended in a hung jury), Judge Julie Robinson scolded the middle-aged Junghans for wearing short skirts. Only in Kansas could a professional woman who graduated from college in 1971 be accused of dressing slutty!
Still, during its quiet moments on the grill, the Strip finds itself pondering something that didn't happen as a result of the whole sordid saga. Three men who served on Westar's board of directors while Wittig and Lake ran their Screw the Rubes racket remain in place. One, an Overland Park lawyer named John C. Nettels Jr. , was Wittig's fraternity buddy and roommate at the University of Kansas.
The presence of Nettels and fellow long-time board members Charles Q. Chandler IV and R.A. Edwards stirs up heartburn among some Westar watchers. David Springe, the attorney for the Kansas Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board, wonders how directors from the days of Wittig managed to retain their titles.
"You hear the claim that the three were instrumental in leading the company back from the abyss," Springe notes. "Of course, that begs the question: What were they doing before then?"
Not much, according to a devastating report by Debevoise & Plimpton, an outside law firm that board members hired to investigate the company's management. As 375-page documents written by lawyers go, it's pretty compelling stuff. The Debevoise report depicts Wittig and Lake as deceptive, greedy men who put their own gratification (Wittig ordered a $29,000 television for his office) ahead of their employees, shareholders and customers. The report criticized the company's directors for their "lack of robust thought and debate" while top executives were running around in pirate hats.
Nettels, who pushes paper at the Stinson Morrison Hecker law firm, was particularly unrobust.
One of Wittig's great extravagances was his use of company jets. In the most shocking example, he gassed up a Westar plane and took his family on a 10-day vacation to France and England. Misuse of the company's air fleet represented a "knowing usurpation of corporate resources," according to the Debevoise report. Nettels was aware that Wittig used Westar jets for personal travel, but he didn't put an immediate end to the practice. In fact, the report says, Nettels accompanied Wittig on a company plane to a sporting event in 2001.
Over time, some board members began to wise up to Wittig's and Lake's shenanigans. After two directors were critical of their lavish compensation, Wittig and Lake tried to get them kicked off the board. One unhappy director, Owen Leonard, informed Westar attorneys that he planned to sell a substantial number of company shares. Wittig got on the phone to Nettels and expressed the view that such a sale would signal a vote of no confidence in management. Nettels agreed with the CEO and flew to New York with another board member to meet with Leonard. Leonard did not welcome the visit. When Leonard resigned, he accused Wittig of having sent "two henchmen" to see him.
Debevoise investigators reported that they commonly heard gripes that the Westar board had turned into sort of a KU mafia. Wittig, Nettels and Edwards along with three other directors who have since left the board all had ties to the university. Nothing like a little inbreeding to stifle dissent!
Alas, Nettels (KU '79, '85) refuses to talk about his accomplishments or lack thereof as a Westar board member. Displaying his trademark courage, Nettels referred this inquisitive cutlet to Westar public-affairs man Jim Ludwig.
Answering for the man who wouldn't answer for himself, Ludwig says board members do not dispute the Debevoise report. He notes that it was the three surviving directors who commissioned the "unsparing" document in the first place and made other decisions crucial to the company's turnaround, such as the hiring of the current CEO, straight-arrow Jim Haines.
Critics, however, believe that Nettels and the others Chandler is chairman of the board came to Jesus a little late in the day. Topeka lawyer Dan Lykins, a Westar shareholder himself, made an unsuccessful attempt to get on the board, running as a write-in candidate. Lykins says Haines is doing a good job. But he wants Chandler and Nettels, the Westar directors with the longest tenure, to go. "We need to get rid of the last two board of directors that approved of what Wittig did," he says. "They should have resigned."
Instead, they make $85,000 year, minimum, for what amounts to a part-time job, whether they do it poorly or well.