Battenberg will take the stand in his own defense

DETROIT -- It’s official: Former Delphi CEO J.T. Battenberg will take the witness stand in his civil securities-fraud trial.

The move, confirmed by his lawyer, carries risk. But it also could help the 67-year-old Battenberg, who was known during his 40-year career at General Motors and Delphi as a charmer who knew how to work a room and prided himself on integrity.

He’s accused of securities fraud for misrepresenting to investors the details of a $237 million payment that Delphi made to GM in the fall of 2000. He’s also charged with signing fraudulent SEC filings.

Battenberg’s lawyer, William Jeffress, told the judge yesterday that he likely will call his client to the stand next week when the trial resumes after a Thanksgiving break.

Battenberg will make his case to a 10-member jury, at least a few of whom acknowledged on juror applications that they don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings for corporate bigwigs.

Peter Henning, a former SEC lawyer and a professor at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, says jurors often fixate on a defendant’s direct testimony regardless of whether it’s substantive. He’ll need to come off as credible, honest, forthcoming, and comfortable answering questions.

That could play to the advantage of Battenberg, an Eagle Scout as a teenager in his native Kansas City. The guy was rated among the top three for the appearance of “trustworthiness” in a 2006 Duke University business school experiment in which students gave their impressions of photos of nearly 60 big-company CEOs.

Testifying also leaves Battenberg open to questions on cross-examination by SEC attorneys, who could try to trip him up on the details of what he knew and didn’t know.

“The SEC can pretty much go to town looking for any inconsistencies,” Henning said.

But he said defense attorneys likely wouldn’t put Battenberg on the stand if there were any bombshells lurking.

Battenberg has sat stoically and nattily dressed at the front of the courtroom every day for weeks of SEC witness testimony. People who know him say he likely relishes the chance to tell his story after years of steadfastly denying that he helped cook Delphi’s books.

Now he gets his chance.