Bernie Ebbers, the former chief executive of WorldCom, was on Wednesday sentenced to 25 years in jail for orchestrating an $11bn fraud, the biggest in US corporate history, at the once high-flying US telecommunications company.
US district judge Barbara S.Jones said the sentence reflected the gravity of the crime.
“Although I know this will probably mean Mr Ebbers will spend the rest of his life in prison, sentencing him to anything less would not reflect the seriousness of the crime.”
Mr Ebbers' sentence is one of the most severe to be handed down for a white-collar crime. Robert Mintz, a lawyer with McCarter & English, called the sentence “staggering”.
“This sends a very chilling message that if you get convicted of these large-scale financial frauds, you're going to be looking at a sentence that a Mafia kingpin or a druglord would face.”
Mr Ebbers' sentence came as US federal prosecutors decided on Wednesday, in a further high profile white collar fraud case, not to pursue perjury charges against Richard Scrushy, the former HealthSouth chief executive. Mr Scrushy was acquitted last month in a multi-billion dollar fraud at the healthcare company. The decision brings an end to two years of government efforts to hold Mr Scrushy criminally responsible for the fraud.Mr Scrushy still faces civil charges.
In sentencing Mr Ebbers, Judge Jones agreed to his lawyer's request to recommend that Mr Ebbers, 63, serve only 23½ years so that he would qualify to serve the term at a low-security prison near his home town of Clinton, Mississippi.
Mr Ebbers remained silent through the sentencing, but appeared upset, dabbing his eyes as he listened to Judge Jones deliver sentence in the US district court in New York.
Reid Weingarten, of Steptoe & Johnson, the law firm representing Mr Ebbers, said he would appeal against the sentence. “It was not a happy day for Bernie Ebbers… . [He] has been transformed into a symbol of corporate corruption.”
In court, Mr Weingarten asked for leniency because Mr Ebbers is suffering from a serious heart condition. They also cited his charity work as a testament of his character.
Some executives who served with Mr Ebbers at WorldCom, were in court on Wednesday during the sentencing. Gino Cavallo, a service consulting exective at MCI, as Worldcom is now known, said: “I am happy that justice was served.“
Mr Ebbers is due to start his sentence on October 12. Five other former WorldCom executives, including Scott Sullivan, former chief financial officer who was the main prosecution witness against Mr Ebbers, are still to be sentenced.