Bernie Ebbers, the former WorldCom CEO once known as the “Telecom Cowboy,” who was locked up for his role in one of the biggest accounting frauds in US history, died Sunday following his early release from prison. He was 78.
Ebbers died surrounded by family in Brookhaven, Mississippi, less than two months after a federal judge ordered an early end to his 25-year prison sentence, according to a statement from his family.
The family praised Manhattan federal Judge Valerie Caproni for letting Ebbers out of prison in December as his physical and mental health deteriorated. He was reportedly grappling with blindness and dementia, among other problems, and one of his daughters had described him as “a mere skeleton.”
“Many stockholders and employees lost their investments in the fall of WorldCom. Many of our friends — and many in our family — did too,” the family’s statement said. “Thankfully, Judge Caproni agreed with us — keeping Dad in prison, especially in his unexplained and undiagnosed deteriorated condition, would not bring back anyone’s investments.”
Born in Canada and educated at Mississippi College, Ebbers coached basketball and had a hotel business before investing in LDDS, the long-distance company that would grow into WorldCom. He garnered a reputation as a “no-nonsense” exec who eschewed suits for jeans. One analyst called Ebbers “the telephone equivalent of Bill Gates” in a 1997 profile.
But Ebbers spent more than 13 years behind bars following his 2005 conviction on securities fraud and other charges stemming from the $11 billion WorldCom fraud. It had become the second-biggest long-distance firm in the US by the time it collapsed in 2002 after Ebbers and others hid its poor financial results from investors. WorldCom’s assets valued at $107 billion made its bankruptcy filing the biggest in US corporate history at the time, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Ebbers stepped down as WorldCom’s CEO in 2002 and started his prison sentence in 2006. He was in federal custody until Dec. 21, when he was released following Caproni’s ruling.
Barbara Jones, the former federal judge who handed down Ebbers’ sentence, expressed support for his release, saying in a letter that he had been “punished enough” given his health problems.
With Post wires