Stephen Teel was the archetype of the loyal employee — two decades with the company, mostly happy with the management, planning for a comfortable retirement with his wife...
NEW YORK — Stephen Teel was the archetype of the loyal employee — two decades with the company, mostly happy with the management, planning for a comfortable retirement with his wife in Texas.
By his early 50s, Teel says he had amassed more than $1 million in his 401(k) account. He invested every penny in the stock of his company, believing it had a bright future.
The company was MCI — later swallowed up by WorldCom.
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In 2003, after WorldCom completed an epic, scandal-spurred collapse, his brokerage mailed him a check for the balance of his account. It was less than $500.
For Teel, now 56, an almost certain early retirement has dissolved into the sickening realization that he may have to work to support himself the rest of his life.
“I was going to retire before 60,” he says from his home in Allen, Texas. “I was going to be able to draw from the 401(k), maybe work part time. But that’s history. That’s never going to happen now.”
Tomorrow, jury selection begins in the Manhattan criminal trial of Bernard Ebbers, the swaggering former WorldCom CEO accused of directing the fraud, which drove WorldCom to the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. People across the country who suffered in WorldCom’s collapse say they will be watching intently, in hopes of determining exactly where the blame lies.
The demise of WorldCom is the story of an almost incomprehensible fraud, with $11 billion in accounting irregularities uncovered by investigators, among the blackest marks in the parade of corporate scandals.
But it also is the story of tens of thousands of individuals like Teel, people who worked for or invested in the telecommunications giant and lost their jobs, their money — or both.
Counting layoffs last year by MCI, about 25,000 WorldCom and MCI workers have lost their jobs since the scandal broke. And thousands more invested in the company.
In some cases, those people have made up their minds already about what should happen at the upcoming trial.
“I would like to see him in the electric chair,” says Sam Owens, who owns a Mississippi insurance company and says he and his business partner lost $70,000 as WorldCom stock drifted down from $17 per share in 2001 to pennies in 2002.
Owens, 55, says he had never invested in stocks before. But WorldCom was “a Mississippi icon,” and he recalls reading and hearing about what a savvy executive Ebbers was.
“All you ever heard here was WorldCom, WorldCom, WorldCom,” Owens said. “Everything he touched turned to gold. And we took the bait, thinking it was going to really do good over time.”
At the trial, lawyers for Ebbers are expected to argue he was unaware of the fraud, leaving the accounting decisions to chief financial officer Scott Sullivan, who will testify against him.
In recent weeks, with their own trial approaching in a separate civil case, 10 former WorldCom directors agreed to pay $18 million out of their own pockets, part of a settlement with angry investors that totaled $54 million.
In the same case, banking giant Citigroup agreed in 2004 to pay $2.65 billion to settle investor claims. And other investment banks could reach similar settlements before the case goes to trial late next month.
But the plaintiffs in that case include many state government retirement funds, unions and financial institutions, all backed by a bevy of expensive lawyers. New York state Comptroller Alan Hevesi has estimated lawyers will lay claim to as much as 6 percent of the money.
Additionally, WorldCom itself agreed to pay $750 million to settle claims by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), including $250 million in stock in MCI, the renamed version of the company after it emerged from bankruptcy.
But that fund for investors has yet to pay any money out because it is accepting investor applications until July 19, said SEC spokesman John Nester. An outside administrator will determine who gets what from the fund.
Many investors doubt they’ll ever see a dime. Some say they don’t plan to try, believing that whatever money forked over will wind up in the hands of lawyers.
“I’ve written mine off,” says John Mosley, a WorldCom investor who owns a body shop in Clinton, Miss., where WorldCom was headquartered before it imploded. “I’m sure I won’t get any of it back.”
Mosley bought $20,000 in WorldCom stock in 2000, around the time the company’s shares — and the broader market itself — were peaking. He lost all of it after the accounting scandal broke in the summer of 2002.
Mosley says he is not certain who is to blame for the WorldCom debacle. He says he will follow the trial closely, keeping his mind on what he lost. And he says he expects the trial to be monitored daily by other WorldCom victims he knows.
“I can tell you for sure it will be,” he says. “There are some people who are really bitter about it.”
Owens, the insurance-company executive, notes the Ebbers trial is far different from the high-profile 2004 obstruction trial of Martha Stewart.
While Stewart saved herself about $50,000 with a timely stock trade, the case had few identifiable victims. In the WorldCom collapse, Owens notes, they are legion.
“Everything looked good,” Owens says, reflecting on his own WorldCom experience. “It was all polished on the outside, and nothing but smoke and mirrors, as we all know now.”