|The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal by the ex-WorldCom Inc. chief of his federal fraud and conspiracy conviction in the $11 billion accounting scandal that destroyed his former Clinton-based company and cost investors thousands of dollars. A former P.E. coach-turned-telecommunications king, Ebbers had challenged two facets of his federal trial that resulted in a 25-year prison sentence.
The justices rejected without comment Ebbers' bid for review of his 2005 conviction based on his contention that he was denied a fair trial.
Hearing the news, Thomas Harris of Brandon, a former WorldCom accountant, who at one time thought he might be able to retire at age 40, said, "I don't harbor any ill feelings against Bernie, but when we make decisions we have to live by them."
Harris, a 13-year employee, left the company, then known as MCI, to open a business with his wife when it appeared he would have to move to stay with the company.
"Hopefully all of this will be a deterrent to other executives making decisions not good for a company," Harris said.
Ebbers began serving his sentence in the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale, La., in September, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons Web site lists July 4, 2028, as the 65-year-old Ebbers' projected release date.
Absent a presidential pardon -which was less likely than Supreme Court intervention - Ebbers will serve his sentence, said Matt Steffey, a professor at Mississippi College School of Law.
Steffey said he wasn't surprised the Supreme Court rejected Ebbers' appeal.
"Other than Mr. Ebbers' status as a businessman, there was nothing noteworthy from a legal perspective," he said. "It seems he got a fair trial, he was ably represented and he had his conviction reviewed by the Court of Appeals. Everything went according to form.
"Cases like this rarely get reviewed by the Supreme Court. If Mr. Ebbers weren't famous, there would be little public interest."
Ebbers argued in court papers the trial judge improperly allowed prosecutors to use testimony from witnesses who had been given immunity but denied immunity to potential defense witnesses.
The judge also instructed jurors they could find Ebbers guilty if they believed he suspected a crime was being committed but intentionally looked the other way.
A federal appeals court upheld the conviction last year while acknowledging Ebbers' sentence for a white-collar crime was longer than sentences routinely imposed by many states for violent crimes. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Ebbers' actions to hide WorldCom's financial problems were substantial and had cost investors dearly.
Stacey Wall, president and chief executive officer at Pinnacle Trust Wealth Management in Ridgeland, said he sympathizes with investors who lost money but thinks Ebbers' sentence was too harsh. "Relative to other corporate scandals and executives involved, he got very unfair treatment," he said.
Ebbers was convicted of fraud and conspiracy in March 2005 for his role in the scheme that drove the former telecommunications giant into bankruptcy in 2002.
Investigators uncovered $11 billion in fraud, much of it because accountants were classifying regular expenses as long-term capital expenditures. The company re-emerged under the name MCI and moved the headquarters to Virginia. Verizon later bought MCI.