Wash trades are again soiling

Duke Energy's

(DUK) - Get Report

name.

Three former employees, including two vice presidents, face criminal charges for allegedly carrying out bogus energy trades while working at a Duke subsidiary. The transactions boosted the company's trading volumes -- and could have influenced energy prices -- even though they served no practical business purpose. Those involved allegedly scored cash bonuses as a result of their trading volumes.

Citing an 18-count indictment unsealed by federal prosecutors on Wednesday, the

Associated Press

identified those charged as former vice presidents Timothy Kramer and Todd Reid and former trader Brian Lavielle. All three have already been terminated by Duke Energy Trading & Marketing, a subsidiary partially owned by

ExxonMobil

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that is currently being dismantled.

For its part, Duke portrayed itself as a victim of the alleged criminals. The company pointed out that the indictments say the former employees "did knowingly devise, intend to devise and participate in a scheme to defraud and to obtain money and property" from the company. Duke went on to say that it is currently reviewing its options and may seek restitution from the individuals involved.

The charges stem from bogus energy trades carried out by Duke before government authorities began investigating the so-called wash trades in the summer of 2002. In the past, Duke said it had identified roughly two dozen wash trades -- and another 66 improper trades executed by a single employee -- when reviewing 750,000 transactions carried out over the course of several years. The company has already paid $28 million, the largest fine levied, to settle related price-reporting charges with commodities regulators.

The employee indictments come less than two weeks after federal prosecutors accused former

Reliant

(RRI)

employees -- and a division of the company itself -- of manipulating energy prices during the California energy crisis. Reliant has denied any wrongdoing.

A third energy company,

CMS

(CMS) - Get Report

, saw one of its former executives slapped with civil charges a few weeks earlier. The

Securities and Exchange Commission

last month singled out Tamela Pallas for allegedly orchestrating a large number of wash trades between two companies that once employed her. Both of those companies -- CMS and Reliant -- engaged heavily in round-trip trading.

Duke continues to downplay the impact of such trades on its own performance, however.

"The company recorded, in 2002, all the appropriate financial adjustments associated with the activities cited by the U.S. Attorney in today's announcement," Duke stated on Wednesday. "The financial implications are not material to Duke Energy."

Duke's stock, which has jumped 27% in a year, tacked on a penny to hit $20.91 on Wednesday.