Depending on whom you believe, Scott Sullivan was either the mastermind of the $11 billion accounting fraud that capsized WorldCom, or a...

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NEW YORK — Depending on whom you believe, Scott Sullivan was either the mastermind of the $11 billion accounting fraud that capsized WorldCom, or a troubled employee who caved to pressure from his boss.

Five months ago, a jury sided with Sullivan, convicting ex-CEO Bernard Ebbers of orchestrating the largest accounting scandal in U.S. history — a verdict that led to a 25-year prison sentence.

And yesterday, Sullivan learned his own, much more lenient penalty: Five years in prison.

“I am sorry for the hurt that has been caused by my cowardly actions. I truly am, your honor,” he said before the sentence was issued. “I stand before you today ashamed and embarrassed.”

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Sullivan, 43, admitted in early 2004 — and testified for 30 hours at Ebbers’ trial this year — that he carried out the epic accounting fraud, which falsely boosted WorldCom’s performance in a bid to please Wall Street.

But he insisted, and repeated in court yesterday, that he did so under intense pressure from Ebbers, 63, who instructed him over and over to “hit the numbers” and meet analyst expectations. Ebbers always maintained he was kept in the dark, and that the fraud was a Sullivan operation.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones told Sullivan he was getting a break on his sentence because he had helped the government build its case against Ebbers. Prosecutors called him a model cooperator.

She also said she was granting him a lighter sentence because his wife is seriously diabetic, and unable to care for the couple’s 4-year-old daughter during her frequent hospitalizations.

But while Jones said she believed Ebbers was the “instigator” of the scandal, she made clear Sullivan bore significant responsibility, telling him his offenses were “of the highest magnitude.”

“Mr. Sullivan, I believe, was the architect of the fraud,” the judge said before imposing the sentence. “Mr. Sullivan was the day-to-day manager, if you will, of the scheme.”

Sullivan has already agreed to sell his $11 million mansion in Boca Raton, Fla., and turn the money over to former WorldCom investors. Under the settlement he also forfeited his decimated WorldCom retirement account.

As WorldCom grew from a small Mississippi long-distance reseller into a global-communications titan, Sullivan came to be seen by Wall Street as an exceptional chief financial officer who nimbly handled analysts’ questions.

Ebbers, by contrast, had a more laid-back public persona. In one analyst conference call played at his trial, he said: “Remember, I’m a P.E. graduate, not an economist.”

Sullivan was indicted in 2002 shortly after the company went bankrupt, and initially denied wrongdoing. But he pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy in 2004 just before he was to go to trial, turning on his former boss.

Sullivan admitted he examined WorldCom’s financial performance each quarter, compared it to what analysts were expecting, then ordered subordinates to make up the difference.

Three of those subordinates — controller David Myers, accounting director Buford Yates and accounting manager Betty Vinson — all face prison terms, although significantly less than Sullivan’s and Ebbers’.