Former WorldCom Chairman Bernard Ebbers, who's facing life in prison for directing the largest securities fraud in U.S. history, cited his charitable...

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Former WorldCom Chairman Bernard Ebbers, who’s facing life in prison for directing the largest securities fraud in U.S. history, cited his charitable works and ill health in a request for leniency at his sentencing next month.

Lawyers for Ebbers told U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones in New York yesterday to use her discretion under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year to impose a prison term “substantially below” the life sentence recommended by a court-ordered pre-sentence investigation. Ebbers will be sentenced July 13.

“Ebbers has led an exemplary life in which he has provided for his family, made extraordinary contributions to his community through his good works and other charitable deeds,” defense lawyer Reid Weingarten wrote in court papers.

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Ebbers, 63, was convicted March 15 of directing an $11 billion accounting fraud at WorldCom, once the second-largest long-distance company, between 2000 and 2002. The company filed the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history in July 2002, after the fraud was discovered. An appeal will be filed after sentencing if a new trial isn’t granted, defense lawyers said.

Ebbers is free on bail.

The former chief executive was convicted March 15 of one count each of conspiracy and securities fraud and seven counts of making false filings to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, while the other eight counts each carry a maximum of 10 years in prison.

The U.S. Supreme Court in January said mandatory sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional and tossed them out. The U.S. Probation Department, in its pre-sentencing report, urged Jones to give Ebbers life in prison, faulting his conduct for a $2.2 billion decline in the value of WorldCom stock.

Defense lawyers asked Jones to impose a lesser sentence because in finding Ebbers guilty, the jury didn’t directly link his crimes to investor losses. Ebbers also said he suffers from four heart-related illnesses, including coronary artery disease.

Ebbers said he deserves a prison term that does “not significantly exceed” the one Jones gives to former WorldCom Chief Financial Officer Scott Sullivan when he is sentenced Aug. 4. Sullivan pleaded guilty to fraud and was the government’s star witness at the trial of his former boss.

“Mr. Sullivan was WorldCom’s CFO and, by many accounts, Mr. Ebbers’ co-equal or even superior when it came to WorldCom’s finances,” Weingarten wrote. “Mr. Sullivan devised every detail of the scheme to defraud WorldCom’s shareholders and personally ordered his subordinates to carry out the fraud — often through intimidation.”

Weingarten and defense attorney Brian Heberlig filed letters from 171 people supporting a reduced sentence for Ebbers, including one by his wife, Kristie, who attended most of his two-month trial in Manhattan federal court.

“I plea that you grant Bernie mercy,” Kristie Ebbers wrote. “I grieve when I think of his life in prison, but I grieve more at the thought that he might never come home. Please, don’t let that be the case.”

Ebbers offered letters from four of his daughters, students from a Sunday school class he taught, family friends, former business associates, an ex-colleague on the board of his alma mater, Mississippi College, and a woman employed by a business he runs. Many attested to his generosity and religious faith.

“I have known him to give a million dollars to a local church,” Trisha Webber wrote. Weingarten said Ebbers made donations of close to $100 million, many of them anonymously.

Ebbers previously asked Jones for a new trial, citing the government’s refusal to grant immunity to three former WorldCom officials he wanted to call as witnesses. Federal prosecutors in New York urged Jones to reject his arguments as a “rehash,” according to court papers. Jones hasn’t ruled on the request.

WorldCom lost more than $180 billion in market value before its bankruptcy. The company emerged from court protection in April 2004 as MCI.