Enron Era Felon Finds Redemption in Helping Others - FOX 26 News | MyFoxHouston

Enron-era felon finds redemption in helping others

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HOUSTON (FOX 26) -

For Helen Sharkey the journey back to joyful living has been long and difficult.

But she is there.

Her story is one of reckoning and redemption.

"I want people to see me as the person I am. I'm not perfect. I've made mistakes, but I'm trying to right it now," says Sharkey in an interview with Fox 26, her first with any broadcast entity.

It's a cautionary tale which demands a return to turbulent times.

The date is November 8th, 2001. With it's credibility in tatters and share price in free fall, the high flying energy goliath known as Enron humbly offers itself for sale.

"I'm a realist. I know where we are and I know what we need, and I know what the alternatives are," said Enron chairman and CEO Ken Lay.

There is only one taker, Chuck Watson of lesser rival Dynegy.

Having labored in Enron's shadow, the temptation to possess the wounded juggernaut is overwhelming and Watson pulls the trigger on a multi billion dollar takeover.

"You know, we looked under the hood and it was just as strong as we thought it was," said Watson at the merger announcement.

Watson couldn't have been more wrong.

The deal would collapse as layer upon layer of Enron fraud came to light. In the prosecutorial dragnet that followed Dynegy too was accused of inflating financial performance with Enron like slight of hand.

"This is about a group of clever people who attempted to convince others that loans were actually operational income, that red ink was actually black," said Federal prosecutor Michael Shelby.

Among those so called "clever people" was 29-year old Helen Sharkey.

"It was devastating. I didn't cope with it. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat," recalled Sharkey.

Having graduated just seven years before and by far the most junior member of a Dynegy deal team, Sharkey had propelled her short accounting career with hard work, talent and strict adherence to the letter of the law.

Then came "Project Alpha" and pressure to bend rules to the breaking point.

"The typical line we got from the bank was, 'Your friend down the street' and they were referring to Enron, 'They are doing this and why can't you do this?'," said Sharkey.

They ultimately did and on an August day in 2003 Helen Sharkey paid a very steep price, pleading guilty to a felony count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud.

 "This sweet little elderly lady whose was in her 90's walked up to me and was like 'Wow, you see what you get when you are greedy?'," said Sharkey.

Brutal treatment, when you consider Helen didn't make a dime beyond her salary off a $300 million dollar deal that claimed her freedom and reputation.

While Dynegy's top executives walked away, Sharkey and two others did time.

Her 27 days behind bars were served just months after the birth of twin boys.

"I missed my child's first steps, one of them," said Sharkey.

Stripped of her professional credentials and branded a criminal, Helen retreated inward.

"I hid for fear that someone would Google me and find out about me before they had a chance to know me. There were feelings of shame for myself, feelings that I had disappointed my father who passed away before my sentencing. I had to deal with all of that," said Sharkey.

In the end, it was the husband and two boys she loves above all else who helped lead her to a better place, to the next right thing.

"Even though I didn't intend to break the law what happened out there was wrong," she admits, "Now as a parent, its even more important because I'm constantly telling my boys you need to own your mistake. The first step to making it right is owning it," said Sharkey.

 No longer in hiding, Helen has mustered the courage to tell her story in a very public way.

For her, the result has been cathartic.

"I really felt that poison had drained out of my body, the love and support of mostly strangers was so healing. I can't describe it," said Sharkey.

At Texas A&M, Helen advised students on the cusp or corporate careers to listen to their gut, because "that's God talking".

"You don't have to be driving the bus. It doesn't have to be your idea. You don't have to be benefiting from something, but if there is unethical behavior and you are a part of it and you don't speak up you are going to be held accountable and that's what happened with me," said Sharkey.

Based on student letters that came by the dozen it appears her warning more than hit their mark.

"You made me realize just how important it is to stick to what I believe," wrote one, "I'll be brave. Your courage has inspired me," wrote another.

Most comforting of all were the words of a young woman.

"You are the type of woman and mother I hope to be."

Next month, Sharkey will share her story and her analysis at the Houston CPA Society Spring Expo.

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