NEW YORK – Former WorldCom chief Bernard Ebbers (search) plans to take the witness stand in his own defense Monday at his federal accounting-fraud trial, a defense lawyer said Friday.
In a meeting with the judge overseeing the case, defense lawyer Brian Heberlig said: "I think there is a very high probability that Mr. Ebbers will testify Monday," according to a transcript of the session.
Ebbers, accused of orchestrating the $11 billion accounting fraud at WorldCom Inc. (search) , has maintained he did nothing wrong. Still, having him testify opens him up to an extremely risky cross-examination by prosecutors.
As recently as Thursday, Reid Weingarten, Ebbers' chief defense lawyer, declined to say whether Ebbers was expected to testify, noting to reporters that several rulings from the judge were still pending.
Ebbers, 63, faces charges of fraud, conspiracy and making false regulatory filings. The counts carry up to 85 years in prison.
The government's case rests on former finance chief Scott Sullivan (search), who testified Ebbers was aware of the fraud and told him to "hit our numbers" — which he said he took as a command to adjust the books to meet Wall Street estimates.
Calling a witness to testify in his or her own defense is perhaps the ultimate gamble for defense attorneys as they plot their strategy.
Mark Belnick, the former top lawyer at Tyco International Ltd. (TYC) — and another high-profile client of Weingarten's — was acquitted of grand-larceny charges last year after he testified at his trial in New York state court.
But Frank Quattrone (search), a star Wall Street banker during the dot-com boom, was convicted after testifying at two separate trials on obstruction charges. Some jurors in that case said Quattrone hurt his chances by taking the stand.
Martha Stewart (search) and her former stockbroker Peter Bacanovic declined to testify and were convicted last year of obstructing a federal probe into a stock sale by Stewart.
In an interview earlier in the Ebbers trial, Timothy Hoeffner, a Philadelphia white-collar lawyer not involved in the case, called the decision of whether to put a defendant on the stand "a very difficult call."
"If they believe that the jury is likely to accept Sullivan's story at face value, they confront the risk that the jury will convict Ebbers based on the uncorroborated testimony of a single witness ... who had significant contact with Ebbers," he said.
On Thursday, a former chairman of WorldCom testified that Sullivan told him in June 2002 that Ebbers did not know about the company's improper accounting entries.
But on cross-examination, Bert Roberts told a federal prosecutor that Sullivan had simply told him Ebbers was unaware of "journal entries," perhaps suggesting Sullivan was referring to actual entries in the company's books — not the overall fraud.
Sullivan, who was the star witness for the prosecution and has already pleaded guilty in the case, testified that Ebbers knew about the accounting fraud, which began in 2000 and eventually sank the company.
Defense lawyers also suggested to reporters Thursday that the case could be in the jury's hands by the end of next week. The decision to have Ebbers testify could delay that schedule.
Judge Barbara Jones told lawyers on Thursday she was still considering several defense motions, including whether to grant immunity from prosecution to three former WorldCom executives the defense wants to call as witnesses.
The defense has also asked the judge to allow statements Sullivan made to the FBI early in the investigation to be introduced as evidence, hoping to expose contradictions with his testimony.
Jurors were off Friday. The trial is to resume Monday morning in Manhattan federal court.