By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 11, 2005
To 171 people who drafted letters on his behalf, Bernard J. Ebbers is a prolific charitable giver, a devoted Sunday school teacher and a regular guy who mows his own lawn and favors Wrangler jeans.
"God is his Character Reference!!!" his daughter Treasure L. Beesen asserted.
The pleas for Ebbers come in advance of his sentencing next month on nine criminal charges stemming from the bankruptcy of WorldCom Inc., the nation's second-largest telecommunications company. In the trial, which ended with guilty verdicts on conspiracy, securities fraud and false filings counts, prosecutors sketched the former chief executive as a force of nature who devised an $11 billion scheme to inflate earnings and micromanaged the company, going as far as to monitor his employees' coffee consumption.
But the mayor of his adopted hometown, Brookhaven, Miss.; a former speaker of the Mississippi House; several Baptist preachers; Ebbers's longtime secretary; and his carpenter were among others who endeavored to paint a more flattering portrait of the man many of them call "Mr. Bernie."
"I personally lost most of my net worth in the WorldCom meltdown," Atlanta investment banker Wilkie S. Colyer wrote in a letter to the judge. "However, I do not blame Bernie, nor do I believe he would deliberately cook his company's books."
Ebbers, 63, faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison when he is sentenced by U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones -- scheduled for July 13. Under sentencing guidelines, which are in part based on the amount of money lost, Ebbers literally scores off the charts -- beyond the highest level included in the tables, according to court papers. Probation officials have recommended he serve a life sentence.
But defense lawyers Brian M. Heberlig and Reid H. Weingarten, in a motion filed yesterday, urged the judge to consider their client's history of heart trouble, his donations of more than $100 million to fund scholarships for needy students and shelter for orphans, and the fact that the conviction has "already had a significant deterrent effect in corporate America."
"We are hopeful that the Court will take these circumstances into account at sentencing," the lawyers said in an e-mail.
Ebbers testified that he thought a series of accounting adjustments at WorldCom fell within the usual course of business -- normal bookkeeping maneuvers rather than illegal tricks. Former finance chief Scott D. Sullivan and a few other accounting employees pleaded guilty, however, and implicated Ebbers in the fraud.
Several of Ebbers's local supporters, including some former employees, said they had observed him push employees to work harder, but not to break the rules. K. William Grothe Jr., a former WorldCom vice president, joined another company owned by Ebbers even after fraud allegations became public.
"It is my hope that sentencing recommendations will take into consideration the important distinction between 'knew' or 'should have known,' " University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert C. Khayat wrote the judge.
Brookhaven pharmacist Robert Watts wrote that he could understand how financial matters could slip past a corporate leader's attention span. He said that his bookkeeper repeatedly warned him about a personal accounting issue but that he is "hard of hearing" and frequently preoccupied filling drug orders.
"I found out it's very easy not to know some important facts," Watts wrote.
Bailey E. Smith, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he had shaken the hands of three presidents but "never met a more impressive person" than Ebbers. Another area pastor said Ebbers took pity on him when he was a bewildered young man in search of appropriate church attire. Ebbers spotted him in a men's clothing store and spent the remainder of the afternoon helping to pick out a new suit.
"A book could be written about the many phone calls he received from people asking for financial help," Deborah Blackwell, his administrative assistant of 15 years, wrote the judge.
Ebbers has signaled he will appeal the conviction. He also is negotiating to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by WorldCom shareholders in advance of his sentencing next month. That move could help him reduce his stay in prison, because defendants can win credit for making restitution to their victims.
Federal prosecutors will respond to the defense motions later this month. WorldCom has since emerged from bankruptcy protection as MCI Inc., of Ashburn.