Former Enron chief Jeffrey Skilling has said he is “absolutely innocent” of any charges linked to the firm’s collapse.
He made the comments as he began what is viewed by experts as his “make or break” testimony against charges of fraud and conspiracy.
“I’m absolutely innocent,” Mr Skilling said as he began his testimony at the federal court in Houston.
“The charges against me are wrong. I will fight those charges till the day I die.”
During questioning by his defence lawyer, Daniel Petrocelli, Mr Skilling also admitted he was nervous as “I guess in some ways my life is on the line”.
As he began the questioning Mr Petrocelli noted that many of Mr Skilling’s former colleagues had pleaded guilty to crimes associated with Enron’s collapse, and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.
During the trial, the defence has consistently argued that they were actually innocent and had been pushed into making guilty pleas to avoid trials or long prison sentences.
When asked whether he believed any of his former colleagues were guilty, Mr Skilling said he believed the “vast majority” who had testified were innocent.
He added that when he decided to resign from the firm after 11 years, he had done so to spend more time with his family.
However, he also admitted he had told Mr Lay he wanted to quit as he was concerned about Enron’s falling stock price.
At its height, Enron was the seventh-biggest US firm and Mr Skilling had played a key role in building up the firm.
Mr Skilling has argued that he is innocent and claimed that Enron collapsed because of a lack of market confidence and a “run on the bank” situation when creditors called in loans and the firm did not have enough money to finance itself.
Both he and Mr Lay have laid the blame for the accounting problems at the door of Enron’s former chief financial officer Andrew Fastow. Mr Fastow has already pleaded guilty to fraud charges and is a prosecution witness.
Mr Lay, 63, is due to testify later this month. He faces six charges of fraud and conspiracy.
Analysts said that Mr Skilling’s time on the stand could make or break his defence.
“His testimony may be his only opportunity to save himself,” said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor.
“But at the same time, he runs the risk of sealing his fate and almost guaranteeing his conviction if jurors find his testimony incredible.”