The trial of Bernard Ebbers, the Canadian-born former chief executive of WorldCom Inc., got underway Tuesday in New York.
Ebbers, 63, has pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud and conspiracy connected with the company’s $11 billion US accounting scandal. He faces up to 85 years in prison if convicted on the charges.
“Bernie Ebbers never sought to mislead investors, never sought to improperly manipulate WorldCom’s numbers, never improperly took any money and never sought to hurt the company he built,” Ebbers’s lawyer Reid Weingarten said when his client was indicted in March 2004.
Ebbers launched a long-distance company in Mississippi in 1983 and built the business into a telecommunications giant.
However, he resigned as the company’s CEO in April 2002, just two months before the company disclosed that it had inflated profits for more than a year by improperly accounting for more than $3.9 billion US.
FROM May 25, 2004: Ebbers faces more WorldCom charges
Accounting sleight of hand made WorldCom’s revenue and earnings appear larger than they actually were. The following month, the corporation filed for bankruptcy.
By the time the investigations were done, authorities said WorldCom shareholders had been the victims of the largest accounting fraud in U.S. history.
The prosecution’s star witness against Ebbers is expected to be former WorldCom chief financial officer Scott Sullivan, who pleaded guilty to three criminal charges and agreed to co-operate with the U.S. government in exchange for the possibility of a lighter sentence.
Ebbers’s defence team is expected to argue that he left accounting decisions to Sullivan.
Jury selection in the case is due to begin Wednesday. Opening statements in the case are set for next week.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones barred prosecutors from offering evidence about Ebbers’s knowledge of hearings into the Enron Corp. scandal.
The prosecution wanted to show that Ebbers watched the hearings on the collapse of Enron and talked about them with Sullivan. The government wanted to show that Ebbers knew WorldCom’s accounting constituted criminal activity, but the judge ruled against the evidence, saying she did not see the relevance.