In the first criminal trial to emerge following Enron Corp.’s collapse, a federal jury in Houston Wednesday convicted four former Merrill Lynch & Co. executives and one former Enron executive of conspiracy and fraud for taking part in a sham financial deal involving Nigerian power barges to improve the energy company’s earnings. A former Enron accountant was acquitted.

The jury spent about 21 hours in deliberation following six weeks of testimony. The verdict was announced Wednesday afternoon.

The case involved an investment by Merrill Lynch in 1999 in three power barges that Enron owned off the coast of Nigeria. Enron executives on trial guaranteed Merrill that they would buy out the investment within six months for a specified profit. Enron boosted its 1999 pretax profit by $12 million with the sham deal, recognizing the investment as a sale of partial interest in the barges.

The jury concluded that the deal was an earnings manipulation scam. The prosecution’s case focused on a Dec. 23, 1999 conference call in which Andrew Fastow, then Enron’s CFO, allegedly promised Merrill officials, led by then-Vice Chairman Daniel Bayly, that the investment bank’s barge interest would be bought out by June 30, 2000.

Sheila Kahanek, a former in-house accountant for Enron, was acquitted. She testified that she had repeatedly opposed a verbal promise that the government contended made the deal a loan, that Enron would resell or buy back Merrill’s interest within six months.

Those convicted of conspiracy and two counts of wire fraud were Bayly, Merrill’s former head of investment banking; James A. Brown, former head of Merrill’s asset lease and finance group; William Fuhs, a vice president who reported to Brown; Robert S. Furst, a former manager of Merrill’s relationship with Enron; and Dan O. Boyle, a former Enron finance executive.

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