U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones sentenced former WorldCom Inc. chief executive Bernard J. Ebbers to 25 years behind bars for his role in the nation's largest accounting fraud, the harshest prison term yet to flow from corporate scandals that rocked the stock market three years ago.

Ebbers must serve 85 percent of the prison term -- making him eligible for release in about two decades. "Although I recognize . . . this is likely to be a life sentence for Mr. Ebbers, I find anything else would not reflect the seriousness of the crime," the judge said. Defense lawyers vowed to appeal and sought to delay his Oct. 12 deadline to report to prison.

The lengthy sentence was the latest move in a long-running government effort to hold business executives accountable for malfeasance that occurred on their watch. Earlier this year, the 80-year-old founder of Adelphia Communications Corp., John J. Rigas, received a 15-year prison sentence. Two weeks ago, an Alabama jury acquitted former HealthSouth Corp. chief executive Richard M. Scrushy on 36 fraud and conspiracy charges. Former Tyco International Ltd. chief L. Dennis Kozlowski is scheduled to be sentenced next month on larceny charges. The final chapter is set to begin when onetime Enron Corp. leaders Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling face trial in Houston in January.

The fraud at WorldCom topped $11 billion and led to the country's biggest bankruptcy filing, in July 2002. Nearly 17,000 employees lost their jobs as a result of the scheme to bury expenses and inflate revenue, a probation report said. The Ashburn company has since emerged from bankruptcy protection and renamed itself MCI Inc.

-- Carrie Johnson

Former WorldCom CEO Bernard J. Ebbers leaves court with wife Kristie.