Updated from 11:34 a.m.
Bernie Ebbers was sentenced to at least 25 years in federal prison Wednesday for acting as the ringleader in the biggest-ever U.S. fraud case.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones handed the 63-year-old former telecom star a prison term in line with federal guidelines. "This is not a minor fraud," she said.
Jones wasn't entirely swayed by defense arguments that Ebbers' crimes warranted less than 30 years in prison. But Jones did bow to defense lawyers' requests for a lighter term because of his poor health. She gave him a 25-year sentence, which will allow Ebbers to serve in a low-security facility rather than a medium-security prison.
Ebbers is scheduled to report to prison in Yazoo City, Miss., on Oct. 12, pending bail, which Jones said she'll decide on within six weeks.
U.S. prosecutors had sought a maximum 85-year sentence. Ebbers' attorneys had pointed to the former telecom titan's charitable contributions and poor health in an effort to get a lighter sentence. But Jones indicated Ebbers' heart condition wasn't "extraordinary" and said her research indicated that he could get adequate care in prison.
Jones turned down defense arguments that she should depart from federal sentencing guidelines, though she said she was impressed by his record of charitable contributions. Weingarten emphasized that point in the courtroom Wednesday, saying that some poor families had despaired of sending their children to college before "an angel" emerged. "That angel was Bernie Ebbers!" Weingarten said to some amusement in the courthouse.
Ebbers' attorneys indicated they still intend to appeal. After the sentencing, attorney Reid Weingarten indicated that the defense believes it has "a lot of exculpatory evidence" that it wasn't permitted to present at trial. Asked if Ebbers has any regrets, Weingarten said, "He testified in the trial and he proclaims his innocence to this day."
convicted in March on nine counts of fraud for leading the sales and expense corruption at WorldCom. Once the cooked books were revealed in 2002, the Jackson, Miss.-based No. 2 long-distance phone company collapsed into bankruptcy. Last year WorldCom emerged from bankruptcy as
, and it is now in a pending merger with
. The $11 billion fraud case became the largest in U.S. history.
Last month, citing his poor health and contributions to charities, lawyers for the 63-year-old former telecom titan asked Jones for leniency on his prison term.
In June, a federal judge sentenced Adelphia founder John Rigas, who is 80 years old, to 15 years in jail for looting the cable company and defrauding its investors.
Ebbers will be traveling light when he packs off for prison. He will be stripped of nearly all his assets and forced to pay $5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi.
The settlement requires Ebbers to forfeit his assets to a trust set up to help recoup investor losses due to the WorldCom collapse.
The agreement requires Ebbers to surrender his luxury home in Clinton, Miss., a major tax refund, his stakes in timberland property, a lumber company, a trucking venture, a marina, a golf course, a rice farm, a hotel and other real estate.
The assets are expected to be sold, with 75% of the proceeds going to members of the WorldCom shareholders suit. The remainder of the proceeds will go to MCI, which stepped in to cover Ebbers' personal loans. The comptroller's office estimates that the total value of the assets is somewhere between $25 million and $40 million.
Last month, an Alabama jury acquitted ex-
chief Richard Scrushy in his fraud trial after a lengthy period of deliberations. That decision came less than two weeks after a New York state jury convicted ex-
chief Dennis Kozlowski and former finance chief Mark Swartz of looting the conglomerate of hundreds of millions of dollars.