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Witness: Ebbers feared being 'wiped out'

As WorldCom's stock price dropped, CEO Bernard Ebbers fretted in 2001 that all his efforts "will basically be wiped out," a former executive testified Friday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

With WorldCom stock faltering, CEO Bernard Ebbers fretted in 2001 that everything he had worked for "will basically be wiped out," a former WorldCom executive testified Friday.

And as WorldCom accountants were forced to hide billions of dollars in expenses, Ebbers said at the same meeting that "extraordinary things had to be done" to turn the company around, former controller David Myers told jurors.

The testimony from Myers, who has already pleaded guilty to fraud, was designed to bolster the government's case that Ebbers was aware of shady accounting at WorldCom and deeply concerned about its stock price.

The former CEO is accused of orchestrating the $11 billion accounting fraud that drove WorldCom into bankruptcy in 2002.

Myers recounted a June 2001 meeting of high-ranking WorldCom executives to discuss out-of-control line costs — the fees WorldCom paid to local telephone carriers — that were threatening the company's bottom line.

By that point, Myers said he had already been ordered by chief financial officer Scott Sullivan to hide the expenses by creating false entries for assets on WorldCom's balance sheet.

At the meeting, Myers said, Ebbers referred to margin calls he was receiving from banks for loans he had taken out that were backed by WorldCom stock.

He remembers Ebbers saying that if the stock slid below the mid-teens, "My margin calls are called and everything I've worked for since I've joined WorldCom will basically be wiped out."

At the same meeting, without specifically referring to accounting tricks, he said Ebbers said "while the company was in extraordinary times, extraordinary things had to be done."

In addition, Myers said Sullivan told him twice in 2001 that Ebbers understood, as Myers put it, "the magnitude of what we were doing on the revenue side and the line-cost side."

The testimony appeared to be the most damaging yet against Ebbers, whose lawyers claim Ebbers left accounting matters to Sullivan and that Sullivan masterminded the fraud.

Ebbers is charged with fraud, conspiracy and making false filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The charges carry up to 85 years in prison.

Myers, one of five WorldCom executives who have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the government, described for jurors taking disappointing financial numbers to Sullivan quarter after quarter in 2001 and 2002.

Time after time, he said, Sullivan ordered him to balance out soaring line-cost expenses with false entries for assets that WorldCom never acquired, most under the heading of "property, plants and equipment."

As WorldCom's troubles deepened, Myers said Sullivan told him to cover up ever-growing amounts of expenses _ $610 million in the second quarter of 2001, $743 million in the third, $941 million in the fourth.

"Were any of these reductions proper?" prosecutor David Anders asked Myers.

"No," he replied, later adding: "I did not believe it was the appropriate or right thing to do."

Prosecutors contend Ebbers directed the fraud to make WorldCom's financial results line up with Wall Street expectations, thereby keeping its stock price high.

The adjustment in the third quarter of 2001, for example, turned a loss by WorldCom of 2 cents per share into a gain of almost 17 cents.

Myers, who said he had attended perhaps 50 meetings with Ebbers, was asked by the prosecutors to describe the chief executive's management style.

"He could be very direct at times, could be described as intimidating," Myers said. "Hands on, understood _ I guess he wanted to understand what was going on."

The description stands in contrast to a tape played earlier by the defense of a conference call with stock analysts, in which Ebbers deflects a question about finances by saying, "I'm a P.E. graduate, not an economist."

Myers returns to the witness stand Monday. Sullivan, the star witness for the government, testifies later.