Shed No Tears for Bernie

The sentencing of the former WorldCom CEO should send a loud message to other corporate crooks.
As federal district court Judge Barbara Jones on Wednesday sentenced former WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers to 25 years in prison for masterminding the world's biggest accounting fraud (non-government category), the defendant began to cry.

It was a touching moment - or at least it would have been if they were tears of genuine remorse instead of abject self-pity.

But contrition and empathy are in short supply among the Bernie Ebbers of the world, the swashbuckling Masters of the Universe for whom there exist only two categories of people - the anointed (or self-anointed) and the eminently replaceable drones who do their bidding and serve at their pleasure.

Barring a successful appeal - and, as much as I hate to say it, we can't rule that out - the 63-year-old Ebbers likely will spend the rest of his life in a federal prison near his home in Mississippi.

That's probably not long enough for the 22,000 WorldCom employees who lost their jobs and pensions due to the telecom July 2002 bankruptcy -- the largest Chapter 11 filing in U.S. history -- nor for the thousands of shareholders who saw their investments in the company evaporate as Ebbers desperately tried to preserve his personal wealth and power.

Since Ebbers was convicted in March on charges that he orchestrated an $11 billion accounting fraud to cover up the telecom huge losses, his attorneys have lobbied for leniency, playing the sympathy (he has heart problems) and the "he's really a good guy" (look how much Bernie has given to charity!) cards.

I don't wish poor health on anyone, but I bet many of Ebbers thousands of victims - the former WorldCom employees and investors - aren't exactly enjoying robust health either. And I'd wager a lot of them no longer can afford health insurance. Still, none of the tears shed in that Manhattan courtroom by Ebbers and his attorney were for them.

As far as the charity goes, lots of unscrupulous people have been known to give away money. Why not? It's good P.R. and tax-deductible. Plus, it allows them to delude themselves and others about their true nature.

His attorneys also presented 169 letters of support written by friends and former colleagues attesting to Bernie's noble character. I wonder how many of these letters were penned by "drones" rather than the "anointed."

During the trial Ebbers and his lawyers tried the "simple country boy" defense: You see, Bernie's never really been good at numbers - ciphering and stuff like that - so how could he have known about the accounting fraud going on right under his nose? He was shocked when he found out, and if he was guilty of anything, it was of trusting too much!

Right. Here's how much trust Bernie has: Suspicious that some WorldCom employees were stealing coffee bags from headquarters, he began to monitor the amount of coffee they drank and eventually cancelled the coffee service. This is the CEO, monitoring coffee consumption. Can you say "control freak"?

According to the testimony of an MCI (WorldCom successor) budget analyst, Ebbers bragged about using parking-lot video cameras to monitor how long workers were taking on smoking breaks and was secretly having bottled-water machines filled with tap water.

Yet the control freak says he just didn't notice how company expenses were fluctuating by hundreds of millions of dollars, often in a month's time. Hey, that ciphering is hard!

Assistant U.S. Attorney William Johnson put it best when he told the jury, "When he said he was not sophisticated, not trained in accounting, he treated you no better than he treated ordinary shareholders. He lied right to your face. It insults your intelligence that Ebbers could have built the company up from nothing in ten years and still be clueless about its financial performance."

On some level it must gall tough-guy, control-freak types like Ebbers to portray themselves as naive, feeble and out of the loop. But as they say, pride goeth before a fall.

This was a hard and loud fall. Hopefully it was heard by other corporate executives who think it's their right to lie, steal and cheat workers and investors.

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