A federal judge ruled that a top

BellSouth

(BLS)

executive is free to take the top job at

Sprint

(FON)

.

Judge William H. Webster said in an arbitration decision that Gary Forsee, a top official at BellSouth and at its Cingular Wireless venture, may accept a job as CEO at Sprint as long as he and Sprint take measures to protect confidential BellSouth data.

The ruling represents a major setback for BellSouth, which had sued Sprint to keep it from hiring Forsee. Sprint moved to hire Forsee, who was a vice chairman at BellSouth, after its longtime top executives, Bill Esrey and Ron LeMay, stepped down in a flap about taxes potentially due on large bubble-era options exercises. BellSouth sued, saying Forsee had access to important corporate information that could compromise the company's competitive efforts.