The trial will be far more complicated than Stewart’s. For one, jurors will have to parse evidence based on accounting issues that are complex and deadly dull. And there are nagging questions as to why Ebbers, who held almost all his WorldCom stock until the bitter end, didn’t dump more shares if he knew the price was propped with bogus financials.
At $11 billion, it’s the largest such case in US legal history. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s about $10,999,955,000 more in financial skulduggery than was involved in Martha Stewart’s trial. (Stewart saved $45,000 by selling her ImClone shares when she did.) No one embodies late 1990s speculation more than Ebbers, 62, who as CEO of a high-flying telecom operated at the epicenter of the tech bubble. Ebbers grew unimaginably rich on paper by securing millions of stock options.
When WorldCom’s growth machine began to sputter so did its stock price, denting Ebbers’ net wealth. Yet he tapped WorldCom’s cash reserves for hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to buy even more stock plus a huge ranch in British Columbia, a Georgia yacht builder and a minor league hockey team. (He still owns a golf club and a lumber business in Mississippi.)
To keep WorldCom afloat, prosecutors charge, Ebbers allegedly resorted to a combination of hype, hidden expenses and phantom revenue to inflate earnings by all those billions and perpetuate the illusion that WorldCom was worth its lofty share price. When the hoax finally emerged, the stock went into a slow-motion collapse from 2000 through 2002, costing investors $180 billion — three times the amount of wealth destroyed at Enron.
A few hours before Ebbers was indicted, Scott Sullivan, WorldCom’s former chief financial officer and one-time Ebbers crony, pleaded guilty to conspiring with him to conceal WorldCom’s weakening results and submitting false reports to investors and regulators. Sullivan, who is now cooperating with prosecutors, will likely be the key witness against Ebbers. According to the indictment, Sullivan urged Ebbers in a September 2000 meeting to issue a warning to investors that revenue was running below expectations — a warning that would have hurt the stock price.