NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Lawyers for convicted former WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers are basing their appeal on claims that they were unfairly denied the opportunity to question the company's former No. 2 executive during his trial, according to a published report.
The Wall Street Journal said former WorldCom Chief Operating Officer Ronald Beaumont remains in legal limbo, and that his status as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the $11 billion fraud that caused the nation's largest bankruptcy put him out of reach to Ebbers' attorneys.
Beaumont was never called to testify for either side in Ebbers' trial after his lawyers indicated that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination by refusing to answer questions.
In July, Ebbers was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in the accounting fraud at the company, although he remains free pending appeal.
The Journal reports that Ebbers' attorneys are arguing in their appeal that Beaumont should have been granted immunity from prosecution so as to be in the position to answer questions. They say memos summarizing government interviews with Beaumont suggest he would have backed Ebbers' testimony that former Chief Financial Officer Scott Sullivan hid the accounting fraud from the CEO.
Beaumont "was more sophisticated and closer to the numbers than Bernie," Ebbers attorney Reid Weingarten told the newspaper. He argues that prosecutors purposely left Beaumont in legal limbo to prevent him from helping to clear Ebbers.
Prosecutors argued in legal briefs that there is no reason to believe Beaumont's testimony would have helped Ebbers. Trial judge Barbara Jones essentially agreed when she refused a defense motion during trial to grant Beaumont immunity and compel his testimony. She ruled that his expected testimony -- denying knowledge of any fraud -- would at most have helped to clear himself, not Ebbers.
Outside attorneys expert in white-collar crime cases told the newspaper that Ebbers' legal strategy is a long shot.
"The government always has a reasonable argument that it doesn't want to immunize a person because that person may have committed a crime," white-collar defense attorney Robert Morvillo told the newspaper. Morvillo represented homemaking entrepreneur Martha Stewart in her criminal case.
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