After months of intense build-up to the trial of Bernie Ebbers, the former chief executive of WorldCom, Mr Ebbers finally took the stand yesterday in his own defence, saying he could not have known of the $11bn [£5.7bn] fraud perpetrated at the telecoms company because he was ignorant of accounting methods.
In a move seen as highly risky because he will be cross-examined by the US government lawyers who have brought the expensive and high-profile case against him, the imposing ex-executive allowed jurors in a Manhattan court to hear him for the first time deny claims that he orchestrated the fraud with his finance director, Scott Sullivan. "I know what I don't know," said Mr Ebbers, 63. "I don't, to this day, know technology. I don't know finance and accounting."
Mr Ebbers attempted to draw a sharp contrast between himself, a former high school basketball coach who had a series of low-level jobs in business before alighting on the telecoms market as a potentially lucrative opportunity, and Mr Sullivan.
Mr Sullivan, a former close associate and friend of Mr Ebbers, has confessed to the fraud and, as part of a plea bargain with prosecutors, has given several weeks of testimony showing how his former boss was in on the financial misdeeds at WorldCom, which collapsed into bankruptcy in 2002.
In taking the stand in his own defence, Mr Ebbers' chief task will be to undermine that assertion. Responding to questions from his own lawyer, Reid Weingarten, Mr Ebbers said his former finance chief "had an uncanny knowledge of the technical details of accounting".
Mr Ebbers said that while he was a "demanding boss", he had focused on being a "coach" to his workers, as his small Mississippi-based long-distance telephone line company swallowed larger companies to become the global telecoms powerhouse that was WorldCom.
When asked by Mr Weingarten whether he had studied accounting, Mr Ebbers said: "The closest thing I've ever had to an accounting course is a preliminary course in economics."
Mr Ebbers is accused of fraud, conspiracy and making false regulatory filings, and if convicted he could receive a jail sentence of up to 85 years.
Mr Sullivan has told the court that, as WorldCom found it increasingly difficult to meet growth targets expected by Wall Street, Mr Ebbers made it clear that means would have to be found to make the company appear on track.
The case continues.
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