By Bethany McLean

(FORTUNE Magazine) – IN THE CONTINUING SAGA OF ENRON, there's big drama--the indictments, the prison sentences, the billions of dollars lost. Then there are the smaller dramas. Among the many lawsuits still wending their way through the courts are several seeking to reclaim over $70 million bestowed on a handful of employees, mainly traders, in the days before Enron's December 2001 bankruptcy filing. Ostensibly the payments (as high as $8 million) were intended to keep the traders from jumping ship for at least 90 days. But the Enron Employment Related Issues Committee that filed the suits claims the bonuses were illegal "preference payments" aimed at putting company money in the pockets of a favored few. The suits seek to reclaim the cash for some of Enron's former employees.

A recent deposition in those cases--that of a former top trader named Jeff Shankman--sheds particular light on Enron's dog-eat-dog culture. ("The joke at Enron was that everybody was replaceable," Shankman tells the lawyers.) In fact Shankman--who didn't get a bonus and was fired unceremoniously right after the bankruptcy--is not a witness for the defense but for the plaintiffs.

It's not clear whether Shankman is testifying out of principle or pique. He describes the payout as "absolutely the most egregious pay that I'd ever seen"--especially given that Enron "made no money." Shankman also tells the lawyers that Enron's worsening condition wasn't a secret within the group. In particular, Shankman testifies that the former head of Enron's trading operations, John Lavorato, told him he had sold all his Enron stock in spring 2001 at about $63 per share. (It was worth pennies by December.) Shankman, who himself made millions at Enron, makes no bones about the mercenary environment the company operated in, which he sums up this way: "It's just 'Try to get as much as you can.' "

Shankman's deposition is also noteworthy for his insights about some key players in the tragedy, such as Greg Whalley, who was Enron's president in its final months and helped orchestrate the trader payments: "Greg had a saying that he liked quite a bit, and that was 'Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.' " Though Shankman says now that Enron CEO Ken Lay, who told him why he was being fired, behaved with dignity, his testimony highlights Lay's aversion to confrontation. "Ken Lay, being very politically correct, made the comment that there was a requirement by the creditor that they had to terminate a certain number of management committee members, which of course was not true. So I think Ken was trying to soften the blow and blame someone else." Sound familiar? -- Bethany McLean