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Ebbers, One in a Long Line of Egos

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page E01

In the end, he was just another gray man in a tan overcoat, trying to catch a cab on a crowded Manhattan street.

In his '90s heyday, former WorldCom Inc. chief executive Bernard J. Ebbers was a cowboy-boot-wearing, larger-than-life personality with a 60-foot yacht. He bragged about his highflying stock price that helped him swallow up more valuable companies.

_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: The Washington Post's Brooke A. Masters was online to discuss the Ebbers case.
Transcript: Roma Theus, vice chairman of the Corporate Integrity and White Collar Crime Committee at the Defense Research Institute
Graphic: A Titan's Rise and Fall
Photo Gallery: Ebbers Through the Years
Video: The Washington Post's Brooke Masters discusses the scene inside the courtroom.
_____In Today's Post_____
WorldCom's Ebbers Convicted (The Washington Post, Mar 16, 2005)
Verdict Weakens Ignorance Defense (The Washington Post, Mar 16, 2005)
Verdict Stirs Up Mix of Emotion For Employees (The Washington Post, Mar 16, 2005)
_____Recent Coverage_____
Jury Seeks Guidance In Ebbers's Trial (The Washington Post, Mar 10, 2005)
Jury Begins Deliberations in Trial of WorldCom's Ebbers (The Washington Post, Mar 5, 2005)
Ebbers's Attorney Blames Underlings (The Washington Post, Mar 4, 2005)
Prosecution Says Ebbers Had Motive, Led Fraud (The Washington Post, Mar 3, 2005)
Conflicting Portraits Of Ebbers Drawn at Trial (The Washington Post, Mar 2, 2005)
_____From FindLaw_____
Indictment (U.S. v. Ebbers)
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Today, Ebbers is facing a maximum of 85 years in prison after being convicted on all counts -- conspiracy, securities fraud and filing the false accounting statements with the Securities and Exchange Commission that led to WorldCom improperly accounting for $11 billion, a key to the company's near-collapse and the loss of millions in shareholder value.

Ebbers -- who grimly waited among a throng of photographers for a taxi to take him away from the federal courthouse in New York yesterday afternoon -- becomes the latest of a string of humbled chief executives, brought down by aggressive federal prosecutors, empowered shareholders and boards, whistle-blowers or arrogance.

Two other '90s corporate highfliers have trials underway -- former Tyco International Ltd. chief executive L. Dennis Kozlowski, known for lavish parties thrown at corporate expense, is being retried for accounting fraud. Also, former HealthSouth Corp. chairman Richard M. Scrushy, also charged with accounting fraud, is facing a shareholder suit claiming he stole company money to buy a Lamborghini, fly friends to the Grammy Awards and promote a band.

"I'd like to know how many covers of Fortune, Forbes and Business Week those three were on," said Ann Yerger, executive director of the Council of Institutional Investors, an organization of large pension funds that own shares in public companies. "We're not in the era of rock star CEOs anymore."

It is a vast turnaround from the days of corporate titan as outsize media celebrity. Some hope it marks the end of one kind of chief executive and the beginning of a new era. They point to buttoned-down Robert A. Iger, chief executive-elect of Walt Disney Co., who will follow the colorful and unpredictable Michael D. Eisner, as one example. Another is Martin J. Sullivan, taking over for longtime chief executive Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg at insurance giant American International Group Inc.

Others say, no, megalomaniac chief executives will always be with us, in fact, should be with us, because their oversize ambitions can spark innovation and growth.

"We don't want to harness that entrepreneurial spirit," said Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, associate dean at the Yale School of Management. "Unpredictability is often a great value of leadership. Hopefully, the public will be able to separate between the playful clowning of Donald Trump versus the piggish behavior of Dennis Kozlowski. Some are creative builders. These people [like Ebbers] are hired gangsters who ripped us off."

Sonnenfeld pointed to Apple Computer Inc.'s Steve Jobs -- who rarely passes up a turn on the stage to trumpet some new product, his image beamed on giant video screens -- as an example of a grandiose chief executive who pushes the edge but plays by the rules.

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