Ken Lay and Enron became synonymous with corporate abuse and accounting fraud when the scandal broke in 2001. Lay was the CEO and chairman of Enron from 1995 until his resignation on January 23, 2003, except for a few months in 2000 when he was chairman and Jeffrey Skilling was CEO.
Enron's bankruptcy, the biggest in U.S. history when it was filed in December 2001, cost 20,000 employees their jobs and many of them their life savings. Investors lost billions. Before Lay was put on trial he was estimated to have a gross wealth of approximately $40 million.
On July 16, 2002, Lay was indicted by a grand jury on 11 counts of securities fraud and related charges. On January 31, 2006, following four and a half years of preparation by government prosecutors, Lay's and Skilling's trial began in Houston. Lay was found guilty on May 25, 2006, of 10 counts against him; the judge dismissed the 11th. Because each count carried a maximum 5- to 10-year sentence, legal experts said Lay could have faced 20 to 30 years in prison.
However, he died while vacationing in Snowmass, Colorado on July 5, 2006, about three and a half months before his scheduled October 23 sentencing. Preliminary autopsy reports state that he died of a heart attack caused by coronary artery disease. As a result of his death, on October 17, 2006 the federal district court judge who presided over the case vacated Lay's conviction.
CNBC named Lay as one of the "Worst American CEOs of All Time" saying, "He was not only dishonest but disastrously inept as a manager as well" and that he "was uninterested in the day-to-day tasks of running the business."