UPDATE 2-NatWest 3 ex-bankers plead guilty in Enron case

(Adds detail and statement from defendants’ attorneys, background, byline)

HOUSTON, Nov 28 (Reuters) - Three former British bankers pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a single wire fraud charge each in an Enron-related case as part of a deal with U.S. prosecutors.

David Bermingham, Giles Darby and Gary Mulgrew, dubbed the “NatWest Three” by the British media, had previously faced seven counts each of wire fraud.

The single fraud charge carries a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison but under the plea agreement they agreed to serve 37 months, just a little over 3 years.

Bermingham, Darby and Mulgrew, each aged 45, pleaded guilty to conspiring with former Enron Corp Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow and his aide Michael Kopper to defraud National Westminster Bank NWB_pa.L of $19 million, with the former bankers dividing $7 million among themselves. Fastow and Kopper later pleaded guilty and are in prison.

As part of the agreement, the trio has to pay $7.35 million in restitution to the Royal Bank of Scotland RBS.L which now owns NatWest.

“Gary, Giles and David have fully accepted responsibility for the significant lapse of judgment that led to the filing of these charges; and that has caused them to be apart from their families and friends in the United Kingdom for an agonizing 17 months,” the defendants’ attorneys said in a joint statement.

The men, who were scheduled to go to trial in January, entered their pleas at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein.

Werlein must still approve the plea agreement and the sentence. Sentencing is set for February.

The men hope to return to the United Kingdom to serve at least part of their sentences, a move the U.S. government supports.

The former bankers were indicted in 2002, arrested in 2004 and sent to the United States in July 2006 after losing a lengthy and controversial extradition fight.

They have been free on $1 million bond in the Houston area while awaiting trial.

The judge lifted a ban on the defendants talking to each other outside the presence of an attorney and left the men free on bond until sentencing. Werlein declined a request to allow the men to travel in Texas beyond the Houston area.

Extradition of the three set off a political furor in Britain, where critics complained that treaty arrangements and laws unduly favor the United States. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair defended the arrangements.

Enron, the world’s largest energy trader before its December 2001 collapse, filed for Chapter 11 protection from creditors after investors learned it used off-balance sheet deals to hide billions of dollars of debt.

The meltdown, the second-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, sparked a series of shareholder lawsuits and criminal charges against the company and management. (Editing by Gary Hill)