BERNARD Ebbers wept as the judge slapped him with a 25-year prison term, but his grief could not be any deeper than that of the individuals who lost their retirement savings in the $11 billion fraud perpetrated by the WorldCom chairman.
The penalty was severe but appropriate given the harm he's caused. According to federal sentencing guidelines, Ebbers, who will be 64 next month, will have to serve at least 21 years and three months, meaning he would be 85 when - if - he gets out.
It may well amount to a life sentence, an unusually rough downfall in the world of corporate bandits, where probation for criminal acts once was considered a birthright.
Thousands of WorldCom stockholders and employees already are serving long sentences of another sort - coping without the jobs, pensions, and personal nest eggs that went down the drain due to Ebbers' manipulation of company finances. The company's bankruptcy, the largest in U.S. history, cost a single New York state retirement fund $300 million in investments.
Thanks to thorough work by federal authorities, Ebbers isn't the only WorldCom official taking a fall. Ten of the company's directors, who normally would be untouchable in such prosecutions, were forced to personally pay $18 million of a $54 million settlement stemming from the bankruptcy. That was in addition to $250 million the same directors lost when the company collapsed in 2002.
If they had it to do over again, perhaps the directors would not have enabled Ebbers' schemes, as they did in 2000 when they turned over $408 million in company funds so he could cover a collateral requirement on another loan against the declining value of his WorldCom stock.
Bernie Ebbers didn't have to lie, cheat, and steal from his company. He did very well in building WorldCom into the nation's second largest telecommunications carrier.
But, as with many criminal enterprises, Ebbers wanted even more. His greed raged out of control and damaged a lot of innocent victims.
Few tears will be shed when he finally disappears behind bars.