WorldCom's Detail Man or Hands-Off Mentor?
By Brooke A. Masters
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page A01
NEW YORK -- WorldCom Inc. former chief executive Bernard J. Ebbers was
so obsessed with cutting costs that he canceled the employees' coffee
service to save $4 million. But when the company's accountants made
more than $2 billion in operating expenses simply disappear, Ebbers
never noticed, according to his testimony at his criminal trial.
Over the past five weeks, jurors in this Manhattan courtroom have been
shown two radically different faces of the entrepreneur who built
WorldCom from an obscure Mississippi phone service reseller to the
nation's second-largest long-distance firm.
One is that of a hard-charging businessman so immersed in WorldCom's
finances that he noticed $18,000 cost overruns in a $3 billion budget
and sent angry memos when he thought subordinates' presentations were
insufficiently detailed. Prosecutors say he was so driven to protect
his personal fortune in WorldCom stock that he orchestrated a scheme
to inflate the company's earnings from 2000 to 2002 by falsely
reclassifying certain operating expenses, known as line costs, as
The other view of WorldCom's chief was on full display as Ebbers, 63,
took the stand in his own defense Monday.
Describing himself as a former milkman and warehouse operator, Ebbers
told the jury he focused on hiring talented subordinates to handle
areas in which he was weak, such as technology and accounting, and
coaching them to do their best. In the crucial period of the fraud,
Ebbers said, he was in the process of disengaging from WorldCom
because he had developed heart trouble and was "embarrassed" by his
inability to understand the technology that was a growing part of his
Soon jurors will have to reconcile the two pictures, or discard one,
as they decide whether to convict Ebbers of conspiracy, securities
fraud and seven counts of filing false documents with the Securities
and Exchange Commission. WorldCom filed for bankruptcy protection in
July 2002 and now operates as MCI Inc. of Ashburn.
While the government presented its case, and during parts of Ebbers's
cross-examination Tuesday, jurors saw flashes of the demanding and
details-oriented boss who dominated WorldCom for nearly two decades,
leading it through more than 65 mergers.
WorldCom's former "whiz kid" finance chief Scott D. Sullivan, who was
just 33 when Ebbers elevated him to the No. 2 job, told the jurors
that his boss could be intimidating and difficult to budge. When
Ebbers disagreed with one of Sullivan's financial decisions, Sullivan
said, "He would make comments to me in the presence of other people,
'We'll just get a new CFO, that's what we'll do.' . . . He said it in
a kidding way, but I didn't take it as a joke." Another witness quoted
Ebbers as referring to the diminutive Sullivan dismissively as "short
man" when he was displeased.
That history is why, Sullivan said, he "took it as a command to commit
accounting fraud" when Ebbers ordered him in private one-on-one
meetings to "hit the numbers" for revenue and earnings that Wall
Street analysts were expecting. "I knew it was wrong. I knew it was
against the law," said Sullivan, now 43. "I capitulated."
Ebbers said on the stand that he rarely had one-on-one conversations
with Sullivan and that the finance chief never told him about the
illegal accounting entries. "If he had, we wouldn't be here today,"
There are no documents or third-party witnesses that conclusively link
Ebbers to the fraud, so prosecutors have sought to show that Ebbers
must have known that the company was hiding line costs -- fees
WorldCom paid to use other carriers' networks -- because he was
intimately familiar with the company's finances, down to the smallest
Budget analyst G. Brady Connor, who works at WorldCom's successor,
MCI, testified earlier that at a meeting in Atlanta, Ebbers boasted of
his cost-cutting efforts. Not only did the chief executive say he used
parking lot video cameras to monitor the length of smoking breaks and
count employees' lunchtime walks around a lake at the Clinton, Miss.,
campus, but he boasted of a trick he was using at the company's
offices in Arlington. Connor testified that Ebbers said he was
working with a security guard "to manually fill up the bottled-water
machines with tap water, and the employees didn't know the
Ebbers, according to Connor, also said he canceled the company's
coffee service because he believed employees were stealing coffee that
WorldCom provided. The company was running through bags of coffee far
faster than it was using filters, Ebbers said, so employees must be
taking bags home.
Prosecutors have also shown the jury that Ebbers tossed around
financial terms like "incremental revenue," "cash earnings" and
"EBITDA margin" (financial speak for a kind of earnings) at meetings
with securities analysts.
During two days on the stand, Ebbers kept his temper, appearing
grandfatherly and occasionally a bit lost when the government asked
him to pick out specific information from a financial document. He
talked proudly of his five daughters and eight grandchildren and
modestly described his more than $100 million in anonymous charitable
He smilingly acknowledged his reputation for cost-cutting, noting that
in his early career as a motel owner, he angered guests by requiring
them to return the towels they had used or pay a fee. A subordinate
had recommended the coffee service cancellation after he asked for
imaginative ways to reduce expenses, he said. "I did not ever count
coffee filters or coffee bags," he insisted. "But I can tell you I
agreed with it [the cost-saving recommendation]. . . . I don't
consider, when you are playing with shareholders' money, that $4
million is a small number."
But Ebbers repeatedly insisted that he never focused on accounting or on
the company's line costs during the period of the fraud because he trusted
Sullivan and others to handle financial matters.
"The closest thing I've ever had to an accounting course is a
preliminary course on economics," Ebbers said, adding later, "I know
what I don't know."
Ebbers testified that he had no idea WorldCom had a problem with
too-high line costs even though he traveled to Virginia in June 2001
to attend a meeting on the subject. "I was invited there by Scott
Sullivan to do my cheerleading thing and give the troops a little pep
talk," he said. Asked why a pep talk was necessary, Ebbers paused and
said, "Scott Sullivan told me there was some lack of harmony in the
As Tuesday wore on, Ebbers began to wear out under cross-examination
by Assistant U.S. Attorney David B. Anders, insisting dozens of times
that he did not recall documents or incidents that his subordinates
had testified about earlier in the trial.
Ebbers said he had no memory of an October 2000 encounter with
then-controller David F. Myers at which Myers said he thought Ebbers
was apologizing for the first fraudulent accounting entry. Ebbers also
said he did not recall telling his head of investor relations,
C. Scott Hamilton, that he would be "wiped out" if the company told
Wall Street to expect lower earnings and the stock price fell as a
Faced with half a dozen documents that showed line costs fluctuating
by $600 million, $700 million, even $900 million in a single month,
Ebbers looked tired and coughed as he insisted that he either had
never read the document or had not noticed the particular line item in
three budget reports he was shown.
"I did not notice that," Ebbers said.
"If I would have noticed it, we would not be here."
"I just didn't see it."
Anders pressed, "WorldCom reduced its line costs by over $2 billion and you
had no idea?"
"That's correct," replied Ebbers, who resumes the stand Wednesday.
Copyright 2005 The Washington Post Company
NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the daily
media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra . Hundreds of new articles daily.
*** FAIR USE NOTICE. This message contains copyrighted material the
use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright
owner. This Internet discussion group is making it available without
profit to group members who have expressed a prior interest in
receiving the included information in their efforts to advance the
understanding of literary, educational, political, and economic
issues, for non-profit research and educational purposes only. I
believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material
as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish
to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go
beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright
owner, in this instance, the Washington Post Company.
For more information go to: