WASHINGTON – Officials at WorldCom Inc. shifted accounts around as early as 2000, well before the nearly $4 billion in accounting irregularities that led the government to file civil fraud charges against the company, documents turned over to a House investigative panel show.
Several managers at WorldCom discovered the earlier juggling of the books, tried to do something about it and were brushed off by senior executives, Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Sunday.
The latest revelation concerning one of the biggest accounting scandals battering investors' confidence came three days after Tauzin said new information indicated that WorldCom founder and former chief executive Bernard Ebbers was aware of the improper bookkeeping disclosed last month.
Ebbers' attorney has insisted he had no knowledge of the transactions.
Committee investigators received five boxes of documents from WorldCom on Thursday, the deadline set by the panel in its request for the records.
"There's quite an insight in these documents as to how corporate greed took over" in 2000 and the company started disguising expenses as capital expenditures to make itself appear more profitable, Tauzin said on ABC's This Week.
"The documents also reveal a strange pattern of people inside the corporation discovering it, trying to do something about it and ultimately failing until recently," Tauzin said.
One of those was WorldCom internal auditor Cynthia Cooper, who met in 2000 with a finance department employee named Troy Normand. Normand expressed concerns to her about "aggressive accounting" that had caused him to consider resigning, Cooper wrote in a memo on their meeting.
Normand took his concerns to then-chief financial officer Scott Sullivan and company comptroller David Myers, both of whom assured him that "everything's fine," Tauzin said. Myers, who was the only person apart from Sullivan to have direct control over WorldCom's books, resigned to avoid being fired by the company when the board learned of the massive misstatement.
Sullivan and Ebbers, who were both ousted from the company, invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination at a congressional hearing last Monday and refused to answer lawmakers' questions. Ebbers cited current investigations by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC filed fraud charges against WorldCom on June 26.
Cooper, who was asked to testify at the hearing but did not appear, reportedly has been providing information to the Justice Department in its criminal investigation of the company.
WorldCom spokesman Brad Burns didn't directly respond to Tauzin's statements Sunday.
"We're fully cooperating with all external investigations," Burns said. "We, more than anyone, want to get to the bottom of this. In the meantime our focus is on our customers, employees and investors."
Officials of WorldCom, which has laid off 17,000 of its 80,000 workers, have not ruled out additional layoffs or even a bankruptcy for the company.
WorldCom told the SEC in a July 1 report that it was investigating possible new accounting problems predating the $4 billion in irregularities it disclosed last month, and that its audit committee was reviewing financial records for 1999 through 2001. The company did not provide details.
Clinton, Miss.-based WorldCom, whose interests include the nation's No. 2 long-distance telephone company, MCI, is one of the latest major corporations to face allegations of executive wrongdoing and accounting dodges — driving down public confidence in business and the stock market.
In another document described by Tauzin, WorldCom employee Stephen Brabbs, who managed the company's European and Asian accounts, says he told people at outside auditor Arthur Andersen about an improper $33 million reduction of expenses in the international division in the spring of 2000 — made by his U.S. bosses after he had closed the books.
When Brabbs told his WorldCom superiors that he had informed people at Andersen, the WorldCom bosses got upset and Sullivan exerted pressure, Tauzin said.
This Week anchor George Stephanopoulos quoted from a Brabbs' letter: "Pressure was exerted, and we were instructed to make the entry. This pressure, we understood, was from Scott's office specifically."
The Energy and Commerce Committee also has been investigating the massive bankruptcies of Enron and Global Crossing, as well as possible insider trading of ImClone stock by relatives of former company chief executive Samuel Waksal, home design magnate Martha Stewart and others.
Tauzin, asked about a new report that ImClone executives, including the general counsel and vice president for marketing, dumped millions of dollars of company stock, said, "I think the coincidences are piling up now to the point where somebody has got a lot of explaining to do."