|Ebbers, on his way to be sentenced Wednesday morning, pushed a photographer out of his way. |
NEW YORK (CNN) -
Bernard Ebbers, the once-celebrated WorldCom chief who faces life behind bars, is baffled by his current predicament.
"Completely bizarre" is how Ebbers, seated in coach class on a Northwest flight bound for New York, described his situation to CNN on Monday afternoon.
Ebbers was in federal court in New York City on Wednesday morning, awaiting his fate as at least one former WorldCom employee described to the court the toll that WorldCom's collapse took on him.
When he is sentenced shortly, Ebbers will become the highest-profile executive yet to be punished following a wave of corporate scandals that began when Houston energy giant Enron imploded in late 2001. At the time, Enron's bankruptcy was the largest in U.S. history.
That is, until WorldCom came along the following year. The phone giant stumbled into bankruptcy in the summer of 2002 amid an $11 billion accounting scandal that cost company shareholders and employees billions of dollars in losses.
Ebbers, 63, was convicted in March of causing WorldCom's downfall. A jury found him guilty of committing nine felonies, crimes that could put him in jail for the rest of his life.
Wearing faded blue jeans and clenching an un-lit cigar in his mouth, Ebbers cited his pending appeal and declined comment on his sentencing.
"What am I going to say?" said Ebbers. "They already said I was guilty."
Ebbers was flying from Memphis along with his wife, Kristie, just two days after U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Jones turned down his request for a new trial. During the three-hour flight, Ebbers noshed on Raisinettes and potato chips.
The image was, in many respects, bizarre for an entrepreneur once considered among the country's most powerful business executives and one who is probably more accustomed to private jets and gourmet food than coach class and cheap snacks.
A former high-school basketball coach and hotel owner in the South, Ebbers helped found WorldCom and was its chief executive from 1985 until 2002. Through a series of acquisitions, including that of long-distance giant MCI in 2000, Ebbers helped build WorldCom into one of the most valued American public companies in the late 1990s.
Along the way, Ebbers amassed a fortune in WorldCom stock. He also gained a reputation as a tight-fisted micromanager: According to former WorldCom executives, Ebbers stopped providing free coffee and had security guards fill the water cooler with tap water.
But Ebbers' world began to unravel in 2002 amid an $11 billion accounting scandal at WorldCom. Ebbers, who was forced to resign from the company, and former chief financial officer Scott Sullivan were accused of orchestrating a massive accounting fraud to prop up WorldCom's tumbling stock price. Sullivan negotiated a plea deal with prosecutors and was the government's main witness against Ebbers, who was convicted in March.
A final supper with some WorldCom friends
Ebbers has asked for a light sentence from the judge due to sentence him. In a lengthy court filing, lawyers for Ebbers cited his declining health, community service and own financial losses from WorldCom's bankruptcy as reasons for leniency. Prosecutors want the maximum term possible under federal sentencing guidelines: 85 years.
Late last month, however, Ebbers agreed to give up most of his assets -- a move that some legal experts say was an attempt to gain sympathy from Judge Jones, a former federal prosecutor known to be tough.
As part of a settlement reached with WorldCom shareholders and MCI, formerly WorldCom, Ebbers forfeited cash and assets worth as much as $45 million. The assets included his Mississippi mansion and extensive real estate holdings.
Kristie, his wife, will keep a modest home in Mississippi and roughly $50,000 to live on.
On Monday, that settlement was given preliminary approval.
As he took what could be his last flight as a free man, Ebbers told CNN that he remains close to some people from his WorldCom days. For instance, he said the group enjoyed a crawfish dinner together last week.
After Wednesday's sentencing, those social visits may have to take place somewhere far from home.
-- CNN producer Winnie Dunbar and CNN/Money staff writer Krysten Crawford.
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