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Jeff Skilling is headed for a long time behind bars.

The former

Enron

chief, once feted as king of the business world, became the latest luminary of the now-defunct energy giant to head for jail. Skilling was sentenced Monday to 24 years in federal prison, after a hearing in which he

claimed innocence and victims of the Enron fraud expressed their outrage.

Skilling was convicted this past spring of fraud and conspiracy in the collapse of the once-mighty energy trader. Enron went bankrupt in December 2001, a mere three months after Skilling relinquished his CEO post. Earlier in 2001, the stock market -- wowed by Skilling's slick salesmanship and the company's supposedly pathbreaking "asset-lite" strategy -- had valued Enron north of $60 billion.

Enron's stunning and swift disintegration ruined thousands of shareholders and employees, many of whose retirement funds were sunk irretrievably into the company's once-highflying shares. The company's collapse raised questions about the nation's business ethics and accounting standards and was the driving force behind the subsequent passage of the little-loved Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.

Back on May 25, Skilling was convicted of one count of conspiracy, 12 counts of securities fraud, five counts of making false statements and one count of insider trading. Nine other insider trading charges ended in acquittal.

Skilling's former boss, onetime Enron chief Ken Lay, was also convicted that day. But Lay's sentence was vacated last week because he died in July, before his appeal could be heard.

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More than a dozen other Enron figures have pleaded guilty in the company's collapse. Several testified against Lay and Skilling during this year's trial, including former CFO Andrew Fastow and former treasurer Ben Glisan.

The key witness against Skilling and Lay was Fastow, the reputed mastermind of the accounting fraud. Fastow has pleaded guilty to securities fraud charges and was sentenced last month to a six-year prison term. Fastow engineered the infamous LJM partnerships that were the centerpiece of Enron's scheme to hide billions of dollars of debt in off-balance-sheet entities.

Prosecutors painted Skilling as a participant in Fastow's schemes and Lay as someone willing to both conceal and profit from the illegal tactics.

Jurors in the trial spent 56 days listening to evidence and testimony from Justice Department lawyers working on a special Enron task force and the defendants' own high-powered legal team. In the trial, prosecutors painted Enron as a hyper-aggressive company whose rapid rise during the 1990s led to cracks in its finances that its executives chose illegal means to fix.

Lay and Skilling denied wrongdoing in the scandal, which put tens of thousands of people out of work and cost many employees their life savings. Billions of dollars of market capitalization was erased by the insolvency.

Skilling reasserted his innocence in a Monday afternoon hearing in Houston before district Judge Sim Lake. Victims of the Enron fraud were to speak afterward, before sentencing took place.

"In terms of remorse, I cannot imagine more remorse," Skilling said, according to media reports. "All that being said, I'm innocent of every one of these charges."

Skilling, who at one time was the youngest partner in the history of the prestigious McKinsey consultancy, had made similar comments immediately after the verdict.

"We fought the good fight, and some things work and some things don't," he said back in May. "We're going to have to go back and think this thing through. Obviously I'm disappointed, but that's the way the system works."