After more than two years awaiting trial in the US on Enron-related charges, three British bankers pleaded guilty on Wednesday in federal court to one count each of wire fraud.
In an agreement reached with the government, the bankers -- Giles Darby, David Bermingham and Gary Mulgrew, all 45 years old -- acknowledged conspiring with Enron's chief financial officer, Andrew Fastow, to enrich themselves at the expense of the UK's National Westminster Bank, which was then their employer and is now part of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
The three men were indicted on seven counts of wire fraud in 2002, and a jury trial was set for January. They faced 35 years in prison. In exchange for the guilty pleas, prosecutors will now recommend 37 months.
The bankers' lawyers said they would ask the court to allow them to serve at least part of their sentence in Britain so they can be near their families.
"Today is an important step -- not the last -- in bringing this terrible ordeal to an end," the three men said in a joint statement released after the hearing.
The statement added that they "look forward to working closely with the British and US governments" to be transferred home promptly.
The case prompted an emergency session of parliament and street protests last year when the three men, called the NatWest Three by the British tabloids, were extradited to the US.
Judge Ewing Werlein of theUS District Court sternly advised the men that it was up to him whether to approve the terms of the plea agreement. In addition to the jail time, the men agreed to compensate Royal Bank of Scotland US$7.3 million, the same amount they now admit to fraudulently acquiring.
During the hearing, a lawyer detailed how the men advised NatWest to sell its stake in an Enron shell company for less than it was worth.
They then bought that stake themselves and flipped it for a profit of US$7.3 million.