US: Ebbers Set to Shed His Assets
Bernard J. Ebbers, the founder and former chief executive of World Com who was found guilty of fraud by a New York jury in March, agreed yesterday to surrender nearly all of his personal fortune - about $40 million - to investors who lost billions when the company spiraled into bankruptcy almost three years ago.
MCI, the successor company to WorldCom after it emerged from bankruptcy in April 2004, will also share in the proceeds from the sale of Mr. Ebbers's assets, although the company stands to receive nowhere near the $338 million it is owed by the former chief executive.
Mr. Ebbers struck the reparation deal with David N. Kelley, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, and representatives of Alan G. Hevesi, the New York State comptroller and head of the state's Common Retirement Fund.
Mr. Hevesi is the lead plaintiff in the WorldCom securities litigation and has collected more than $6.1 billion from a handful of the company's former investment banks and its former auditor, Arthur Andersen.
Mr. Hevesi also set a precedent in a securities fraud lawsuit by extracting almost $25 million from the personal holdings of WorldCom's 12 former directors. The amount recovered by the New York fund dwarfs restitution figures reached in other securities fraud cases, including Cendant and Computer Associates.
The deal with Mr. Ebbers was concluded in advance of his sentencing in the criminal case, which is scheduled for July 13. Prosecutors have asked the judge overseeing the case to sentence Mr. Ebbers to 85 years for masterminding the $11 billion WorldCom fraud, the largest in United States corporate history. Barbara S. Jones, the judge in the case, must approve the settlement agreement reached yesterday with Mr. Ebbers. If it is approved, prosecutors said they would not seek restitution beyond the sale of his assets at Mr. Ebbers's sentencing.
"Mr. Ebbers was the person most responsible for the biggest corporate fraud in history and it is appropriate that he surrender most of his personal wealth to the stockholders and bondholders he betrayed," Mr. Hevesi said in a statement.
David R. Kaufman, a lawyer who represents Mr. Ebbers, said that neither he nor his client would comment on the settlement.
The assets that Mr. Ebbers has promised to turn over include $5 million in cash, a prospective "multimillion dollar" tax refund, 300,000 acres of timberland in Mississippi, as well as interests in a major trucking business, a marina and golf course, a crop and crawfish farm and grain elevator, a hotel and other real estate ventures. He and his wife will also be required to vacate their multimillion-dollar home in Clinton, Miss., by October; it will be put up for sale.
In addition, Mr. Ebbers has agreed to pay $450,000 to former WorldCom employees who sued him over losses they incurred in their retirement accounts, which were heavily invested in WorldCom stock.
Mr. Ebbers will be allowed to keep some money to pay his legal bills, although the amount was not disclosed. At the height of the telecommunications boom about five years ago, Mr. Ebbers was worth $1 billion on paper. He got into financial trouble when he borrowed against his WorldCom stock to invest in real estate - he bought a 500,000-acre ranch in Canada - and other businesses. The ranch has already been sold. When WorldCom stock collapsed, the company lent him hundreds of millions of dollars to pay off the loans backed by the shares.
The New York State fund will hire a trustee to oversee the sale of the assets and distribute the proceeds to the hundreds of thousands of investors who lost money buying WorldCom bonds and stock in the years leading up to its collapse. These investors included mutual funds, insurance companies and individuals; they will receive 94.5 percent of the $6.1 billion recovered by Mr. Hevesi in the suit.
The rest will go to the lawyers representing the New York fund, Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann and Barrack, Rodos & Bacine, both of New York. Lawyers for the fund have agreed to take no fees from the proceeds generated by the settlement agreement.
Brittany Feinson, an MCI spokeswoman, said, "This settlement is another positive step forward and enables the company to realize significant value for its shareholders."
Mr. Ebbers is not the first former telecommunications chief to dig into his own pocket to cover investors' losses. Gary Winnick, the founder of Global Crossing, paid $30 million of his own money to settle with investors and former workers who lost money and their pensions when that company collapsed in 2002. But that $30 million was a fraction of the $734 million that Mr. Winnick reaped by selling shares in Global Crossing before it failed.
In return for the payments and asset transfers Mr. Ebbers is making, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer of New York has also agreed to resolve his case against Mr. Ebbers relating to his receipt of hot stock offerings during the technology bubble. Mr. Ebbers, an important client of Wall Street brokerage firms, received large amounts of stocks that most other investors did not receive.
Sean Coffey, a lawyer at Bernstein Litowitz, said that the two firms representing Mr. Hevesi were in settlement talks with the three remaining defendants in the WorldCom securities case. They are Scott Sullivan, the former chief financial officer who testified against his former boss at Mr. Ebbers's criminal trial this year, and two other financial executives at the company, David F. Myers and Buford Yates.
Mr. Sullivan's lawyer declined to comment on the negotiations. Lawyers for Mr. Myers and Mr. Yates did not return phone calls seeking comment.
- 186 Financial Services, Insurance and Banking