U.S. to seek life term for Ebbers, ex-CEO of WorldCom

NEW YORK - Federal prosecutors want former WorldCom boss Bernard J. Ebbers to go to prison for the rest of his life, and have urged a federal judge to brush off his pleas for leniency.

In court papers made public yesterday, the government encouraged U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones to reject Ebbers' plea for leniency when he is sentenced July 13 and hand down a penalty consistent with a federal probation report that has recommended a life sentence.

"The enormity of the crimes that Ebbers committed cannot be overstated: The fraud at WorldCom was the largest securities fraud in history," prosecutors wrote. "Along with Enron, the name WorldCom has become synonymous with fraud."

Prosecutors said Ebbers cost investors more than $2 billion, enriched himself by more than $1 million and obstructed justice by giving testimony that was "flatly inconsistent" with the jury's verdict. Those factors call for a sentence beyond the statutory base, they said.

They also encouraged Jones to consider the prison sentence given last week to Adelphia Communications founder John J. Rigas - 15 years. Rigas, who's 80 and in poor health, could be released sooner if he serves at least two years and has less than three months to live.

Ebbers, 63, who has a history of heart problems, was convicted March 15 of orchestrating the $11 billion accounting fraud that sank WorldCom Inc. three years ago.

Ebbers has asked the judge for a sentence "substantially below" life in prison, noting his poor health and a history of charitable works. More than 100 people, mostly family and friends, also have written to Jones on his behalf.

Prosecutors said the federal Bureau of Prisons would have no trouble looking after Ebbers' health. As for the good works Ebbers says should win him leniency, including compassion for others and acting as a professional role model, prosecutors said those "are what one should expect of decent, hardworking people."

While probation officials have recommended a life sentence based on sentencing guidelines, a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year changed the guidelines from mandatory to advisory.

The government's sentence request was largely the result of the size of the decline in WorldCom's market value as a result of the fraud, said Kirby D. Behre, a former prosecutor and an author of a treatise on sentencing guidelines, who practices at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker in Washington.

"These sentences, under the federal sentencing guidelines, are driven overwhelmingly by the amount of the fraud," Behre said.

Prosecutors also cited two other financial fraud cases in New York in which an insurance executive was sentenced to 20 years in prison and another executive received 22 years.

Ebbers is awaiting the judge's ruling on his bid for a new trial, claiming the government or the judge should have granted immunity to three former WorldCom employees that Ebbers says could have helped his defense. His lawyers have also indicated Ebbers would appeal his conviction.

WorldCom collapsed into bankruptcy - the largest in U.S. history - in 2002 after Ebbers resigned and the fraud came to light. It has since emerged from bankruptcy and operates now under the name MCI Inc.

The Associated Press, New York Times and Bloomberg News contributed to this article.