NEW YORK – Former WorldCom Inc. (search) Chief Executive Bernard Ebbers (search) likely will get a stiff prison term that could last the rest of his life when he is sentenced by a U.S. judge this week, legal experts said Monday.
The one-time milkman and high school sports coach, who was convicted in March of orchestrating the largest business fraud in U.S. history, likely will receive 10 to 20 years in prison — or possibly more — when he is sentenced on Wednesday, experts said.
For the 63-year-old Ebbers, that essentially could mean a life sentence, probably at a minimum security federal facility where other white-collar criminals have been incarcerated.
Ebbers is "a little bit on uncharted ground because of the size of the fraud," said Robert Giuffra, a partner at law firm Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. "You could be looking at a lifetime sentence almost, though whether the judge will actually impose that sentence or not, I don't know."
The ex-WorldCom chief was convicted in March on nine counts of conspiracy, securities fraud and filing false statements with regulators stemming from the $11 billion accounting scandal. His lawyers have vowed to appeal.
Barry Felder, an attorney at Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner, said he expects Manhattan federal Judge Barbara Jones will hand down a relatively harsh sentence. More and more judges are trying to send a message that corporate fraud will not be tolerated, he said.
"I do think it's likely that he is going to get some substantial time," he said.
Because he is not considered a violent offender, Ebbers likely would serve his time at a place like Eglin Federal Prison Camp (search) near Pensacola, Fla., that has no bars, barbed wire or guard towers, Giuffra said. He said Ebbers would sleep on a bunk bed in a giant dormitory room housing many other men and that his days would be filled with mundane chores, like washing dishes or cleaning toilets.
"It's very tedious," Giuffra said. "Basically you lose contact with society."
Prosecutors want Ebbers to get as much as 85 years in prison, based on the massive investor losses at WorldCom. Ebbers' lawyers want leniency, saying their client is a "decent and honorable" man who also has serious heart problems.
Ebbers recently agreed to forfeit almost all of his personal wealth, estimated at nearly $45 million, to WorldCom investors. WorldCom, now known as MCI Inc. (MCIP), filed for bankruptcy protection in July 2002.
Ebbers is one of a string of high-profile U.S. executives to go on trial for alleged boardroom wrongdoing.
Last month, also in Manhattan federal court, 80-year-old John Rigas (search) was sentenced to 15 years in prison for stealing millions from cable operator Adelphia Communications Corp (search). Rigas' son, Timothy, was sentenced to 20 years.
Ex-Tyco chief Dennis Kozlowski (search) was convicted of fraud in Manhattan state court last month, as was the company's former finance chief.