Federal prosecutors have told lawyers for former WorldCom Inc. chief executive Bernard J. Ebbers that they plan to argue he lied about the telecommunications giant's financial condition in order to get personal loans from three national banks and the company itself, according to documents filed in the case last week.
Ebbers is slated to go on trial in November on charges of conspiracy, securities fraud and filing false documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission in connection with WorldCom's spectacular 2002 collapse into bankruptcy. The company, which has reorganized and now does business as MCI Inc., eventually had to restate more than $11 billion in the nation's largest-ever accounting scandal.
MCI sued Ebbers in July to recover more than $340 million that he borrowed from the company, and an investigation of the company's collapse reported that the former CEO's personal and business debt exceeded $1 billion. But prosecutors had not linked that borrowing to Ebbers's motive for participating in the alleged conspiracy until a Sept. 28 letter to Ebbers's defense team. Defense attorneys filed the letter in court last week as part of a request to delay Ebbers's trial until February.
Prosecutors wrote in the letter that the government plans to introduce evidence of the loans that Ebbers obtained from WorldCom, Citibank, J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America from 2000 to 2002 "to establish the defendant's motive, opportunity, intent, knowledge, plan and absence of mistakes" in allegedly conspiring to falsify WorldCom's accounting. Former WorldCom chief financial officer Scott D. Sullivan has already pleaded guilty to the accounting scheme and is cooperating with prosecutors.
"Ebbers obtained and continued to receive the benefit of the Bank Loans without disclosing his knowledge that WorldCom's true performance differed materially from the performance WorldCom publicly reported," prosecutors wrote. They also alleged that Ebbers tinkered with the composition of the company's "tracking stocks" -- which were supposed to reflect the performance of its different subsidiaries -- without telling investors.
Ebbers's lawyers complained in their Oct. 4 filing that they were now having to defend against "two completely new accusations that will require substantial pretrial preparation," including sifting through 250 boxes of documents for evidence.
Reached yesterday, one of Ebbers's lawyers referred the call to lead attorney Reid H. Weingarten, who declined to comment, except to say, "It's not much of a story." Weingarten has said in the past that Ebbers trusted Sullivan and other company officials to take care of the company's accounting and has done nothing wrong. Ebbers has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.