NEW YORK – Former WorldCom (search) CEO Bernard Ebbers (search) was sentenced Wednesday to 25 years in prison for his role in the telecommunications giant's $11 billion accounting fraud.
The sentence was handed down by Judge Barbara Jones of Manhattan federal court, three years after WorldCom collapsed in the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Prosecutors wanted Ebbers, 63, to be sentenced to as much as 85 years in prison. Jones said she believed federal guidelines called for a sentence of between 30 years and life in prison. But she invited lawyers and the defendant to speak to her before a sentence was imposed.
The one-time milkman and high school sports coach sat silently when the sentence was announced and did not make any statements at the hearing. Afterward, he stood up and hugged his wife, both teary-eyed. He then stood by himself with his head bowed and hands grasping the back of his chair for more than a minute.
The judge ordered Ebbers to surrender by Oct. 12, recommending that he serve his time in a low-security federal prison in Yazoo City, Miss. His lawyers asked that he be allowed to stay out of prison on bail while he pursues an appeal, something the government opposes.
Jones gave both sides several weeks to submit papers on that issue. Earlier this week, the judge rejected a bid by Ebbers for a new trial.
Under federal rules, Ebbers would be required to serve about 85 percent of his sentence -- meaning that he would not be released until 2027 at the earliest if he starts the jail time later this year.
Defense lawyer Reid Weingarten had asked for leniency, mentioning Ebbers' heart condition and his charitable works, cited repeatedly in 169 letters sent to the judge. He described Ebbers as "a modest man" and an angel to many desperate charitable causes.
The judge said she did not believe his heart condition was serious enough to warrant a lesser sentence. She called the charity question a close call and said she would consider it but not formally reduce sentence because of it.
Ebbers is the first of six former WorldCom executives and accountants facing sentencing this summer. The other five all pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate against their former boss. WorldCom emerged from bankruptcy as MCI Inc.
Ebbers resigned as CEO in 2002, shortly before the widespread fraud at the company came to light. Investigators eventually uncovered $11 billion in improper accounting.
That summer, WorldCom collapsed in the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, wiping out billions of dollars of investors' money. It has since re-emerged under the name MCI Inc. (MCIP), based in Ashburn, Va.
At trial, Ebbers argued he was completely unaware of the fraud, and that he simply did not look at some key WorldCom financial documents that showed glaring accounting irregularities.
Five other WorldCom executives and accountants, all of whom pleaded guilty in the fraud and cooperated against Ebbers, face sentencing later this summer.
The toughest figures to go to Scott Sullivan (search), the former finance chief under Ebbers, who said he carried out the fraud in 2000, 2001 and 2002 on Ebbers' orders.
WorldCom remains the largest of the corporate frauds that began making headlines with the fall of Enron Corp. (search) in late 2001. Three top executives from that company are due to go on trial in Houston in January.
In papers filed last month, prosecutors asked Judge Barbara Jones to follow a probation report that suggested Ebbers receive a life sentence after calculating his crimes under federal sentencing guidelines.
"The enormity of the crimes that Ebbers committed cannot be overstated: The fraud at WorldCom was the largest securities fraud in history," prosecutors wrote, noting the name WorldCom (search) is now "synonymous with fraud."
The prosecutors also noted that Adelphia Communications Corp. (search) founder John Rigas (search), 80 and in poor health, received a 15-year sentence last month — amounting to a life term — for his role in the fraud at that company.
For his part, Ebbers had asked for a term "substantially below" life in prison, citing his poor health and a history of charitable works. More than 100 people have also written to Jones on his behalf.
The sentencing came a day after the judge denied a bid by Ebbers for a new trial — a ruling in which she cited "strong" evidence supporting the conviction, including government witnesses who "outlined the fraud in painstaking detail."
Ebbers had argued that he deserved a new trial, contending the court should have granted immunity to three prospective defense witnesses and that jurors were given improper instructions when weighing the case.
On Monday, another judge gave her blessing to a settlement under which Ebbers must forfeit almost all his personal assets, including $5 million cash up front, to resolve a shareholder lawsuit.
That settlement will leave Ebbers' wife with about $50,000 of Ebbers' assets and a modest home in Jackson, Miss. A far more lavish family home in Brookhaven, Miss., will be sold off as part of the settlement.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.