El Paso ( EP) is bracing for judgment day. Tuesday in Houston, managers at the disgraced energy giant will learn whether they'll be held accountable once and for all after losing billions of dollars in pursuit of a risky strategy that failed along with Enron. Having paid an enormous price for that mistake, El Paso investors now hold all the power. They can forgive their leaders by re-electing them. Or they can throw the book at them and kick them out the door. El Paso incumbents claim they have changed their ways and are headed down the right path. But a powerful group of dissidents, seeking to oust the current CEO and entire board, warns against letting the old guard off with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. "If El Paso's management slate is re-elected, there is significant risk that, without the steady pressure we have been applying, they would revert to their old ways," Selim Zilkha, the big shareholder leading the proxy fight, said in a recent letter to investors. That is "a risk that El Paso shareholders simply can't afford." El Paso has flooded the news wires with even more frantic warnings of its own. In recent days, the company has repeatedly claimed that Zilkha's team will derail a solid turnaround plan and replace it with an "uninformed and unworkable" strategy that's based on little more than "alchemy." So far, the dissidents have snagged key support from influential groups such as the proxy adviser Institutional Shareholder Services and the big labor organizer AFL-CIO. But El Paso has gone on to win the vote of Brandes Investment Partners -- its third-largest shareholder -- indicating that the result of the vote is far from a foregone conclusion. "I'd say it's even odds right now," said John Olson, a veteran energy analyst at Sanders Morris Harris who's a longtime holder of El Paso shares. "I don't think anybody knows" how the contest will end.
Racking Up Points
By now, the dissidents already have won the easy half of the battle. They proved, even to the satisfaction of El Paso supporters, that the company's leadership had failed. Of course, they had no shortage of evidence.