NEW YORK – Former WorldCom Inc. (search) accountant Betty Vinson (search) was ordered Friday to serve five months in prison for participating in the $11 billion business fraud at the company, while one of her former colleagues who also had a role in the scheme was sentenced to probation.
Vinson, 49, and Troy Normand, 38, each pleaded guilty to one count of securities fraud and one count of conspiracy.
Both testified for the government at the trial of former Chief Executive Bernard Ebbers (search), saying they were pressured by their superiors to falsify the telecommunications company's books to help it meet profit expectations.
Ebbers was found guilty in March and sentenced last month to 25 years in prison.
The WorldCom fraud precipitated the company's descent into bankruptcy in July 2002 and widespread losses for investors. It now operates as MCI Inc (MCIP).
Vinson, a former WorldCom director of management who helped prepare financial documents, was also ordered to serve five months in home detention.
While Vinson "was among the least culpable members of the conspiracy at WorldCom," that did not excuse her behavior, said Manhattan federal judge Barbara Jones.
"It's possible this conspiracy might have been nipped in the bud" if Vinson had refused to carry out her superiors' orders, Jones said.
At a separate hearing before the same judge, Normand was sentenced to three years probation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Anders said Normand, a former WorldCom accountant, was at the "very bottom" of the hierarchy that perpetrated the fraud. "He was the first person to say, basically 'that's enough,"' Anders said.
Three more former WorldCom officials who cooperated with prosecutors probing financial wrongdoing at the company face sentencing next week.
Ex-WorldCom Chief Financial Officer Scott Sullivan (search), considered the government's star witness at Ebbers' trial, will be sentenced next Thursday.
Defense attorney Joseph Hollomon, who represented both Vinson and Normand, asked for probation instead of jail for both of his clients.
But in Vinson's case, the judge said it was necessary to impose some prison time, although Jones said Vinson's cooperation with prosecutors "played a very significant role in the unraveling of the fraud."
Vinson and Normand each faced a possible maximum prison term of roughly 14 years, but they had been widely expected to receive a lighter sentence because they cooperated with prosecutors.
In brief, barely audible remarks to the judge, Vinson said she "never expected to be here" and "certainly will never do anything like this again."
The judge ordered Vinson to begin serving her sentence on Nov. 7. Her lawyer requested she be housed in a prison near friends and family in Jackson, Miss., but federal probation officials will make a final determination.
Normand told the judge he regretted the decisions he made at WorldCom. "My head was telling me one thing, but my heart was telling me another," he said.
When the judge announced she would sentence him to probation, Normand bowed his head briefly in apparent relief.