The fraud and conspiracy convictions of former WorldCom Chief Executive Bernard Ebbers should be overturned because his trial was “fundamentally flawed,” his lawyers argued in papers filed with a federal appeals court Thursday.
His lawyers urged the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals to set aside the guilty verdicts, saying that a lower court should have forced the government to grant immunity to several prospective defense witnesses and that it also made two other significant mistakes.
Ebbers, 64, was found guilty in March of orchestrating an $11-billion accounting fraud that drove WorldCom into bankruptcy. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but remains free on bail while appealing.
His lawyers said the court wrongly instructed the jury that it could convict Ebbers on the basis of so-called “conscious avoidance” of knowledge of the fraud at WorldCom.
They also said that although all of the charges were “directly predicated on allegedly fraudulent accounting entries in WorldCom’s financial statements,” the jury was improperly permitted to vote for a conviction even if the company’s underlying accounting entries fully complied with accounting standards.
“These errors greatly hindered Ebbers’ ability to present a defense, unfairly lowered the government’s burden of proof and offered the jury a compromise path to conviction,” according to the brief from his legal team, led by defense attorney Reid Weingarten of Steptoe & Johnson in Washington.
“It is likely that the outcome of this trial would have been different if even one of these errors had been corrected,” they wrote.
His lawyers also called Ebbers’ 25-year prison term “unreasonable and legally erroneous.”
They said the sentence was five times as long as that given to former WorldCom financial chief Scott Sullivan, who pleaded guilty to fraud charges and was the government’s star witness at Ebbers’ trial. Sullivan, however, was termed the “architect” of the fraud by U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Jones, who oversaw the criminal case, Ebbers’ lawyers wrote.
Ebbers was convicted of nine counts of fraud, conspiracy and filing false documents with securities regulators by a federal jury that deliberated for eight days.