A Houston jury on Thursday convicted Enron Corp.’s founder Ken Lay of conspiracy and fraud, despite testimony by prominent minister and former Southern Baptist Convention president Ed Young, who vouched for him as a character witness.

Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church of Houston and SBC president in 1993 and 1994, was the last witness to testify for the defense before jury deliberations began six days earlier.

According to media reports, Young said he believes Lay is a trustworthy man. While Lay is not a member of Young’s church, Lay’s oldest son is. Young said the elder Lay, a member of a Methodist church, would come to Second Baptist with his children.

Young testified he acted as Lay’s spiritual adviser during the last four years. “We talked on the phone many times, prayed on the phone many times,” Young said.

Young also said he visited Lay’s office after the Enron bankruptcy in October 2001 to talk and pray.

“I believe he loves God, I believe he works hard, and I believe he’s a man who keeps his word,” Young said.

Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, said Young “misused his high-profile position as a pastor to look the other way about one of America’s most corrupt CEOs.”

“Once again, we see moral relativism on display by a Southern Baptist fundamentalist who sees nothing wrong with white-collar crime,” Parham said. “Shame on him for watering down biblical standards for the sheiks with silver shekels. We need moral leaders to renew the critique of the Hebrew prophets on the rich who use their power to cheat others.”

Young, who also defended indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is a member of his church, isn’t the only Southern Baptist leader to vouch for white collar felons connected to high profile crimes.

Jim Futral, executive director-treasurer of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, asked for leniency for former Worldcom CEO Bernie Ebbers, who was sentenced last July to 25 years in federal prison for what the Jackson Clarion-Ledger called “the worst business fraud in history.”

The Mississippi Baptist Record did not carry a story about Ebbers’ conviction, even though he is a member of Easthaven Baptist Church, which is affiliated with the state convention.

Lay, 64, was convicted on all six counts against him, including conspiracy to commit securities and wire fraud. He faces a maximum of 45 years in prison. He posted a $5 million bond secured with family owned properties and was ordered to stay in the Southern District of Texas or Colorado.

“I firmly believe I’m innocent of the charges against me,” Lay said following the verdict. “We believe that God in fact is in control and indeed he does work all things for good for those who love the Lord.”

Former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling, 52, was also convicted on 18 counts of conspiracy and fraud. Combined with his conviction on one count of insider trading, he faces a maximum of 185 years in prison.

Lay founded Enron in 1985 and served as its CEO for more than 15 years. Skilling joined the company in 1990 and became its CEO in February 2001. Skilling resigned abruptly in August 2001, citing family reasons.

Both were credited with building Enron into a major energy trading company with assets at one point estimated at $100 billion. After the company’s collapse, it and a subsequent series of corporate scandals became a symbol of greed, deceit and what is wrong with corporate America.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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