NEW YORK - Money, power and pressure combined to form a "perfect storm of corruption" that led former WorldCom Inc. chief executive Bernard J. Ebbers to commit an enormous fraud, a federal prosecutor said in closing arguments at Ebbers' fraud trial yesterday.
Ebbers' testimony that he was unfamiliar with finance and accounting is little more than a deceitful effort to avoid punishment, an "aw shucks defense," Assistant U.S. Attorney William F. Johnson told the jury in federal court in Manhattan.
"He lied right to your face," Johnson said. "The aw-shucks defense insults your intelligence. You know better."
U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones said the defense will present its closing argument this morning and that jurors might begin deliberations in the afternoon.
The prosecutor portrayed Ebbers as a hard-nosed, temperamental manager who became the commanding general of an "army of fraud" at WorldCom before the No. 2 long-distance telephone company was forced into bankruptcy, the biggest in history, in 2002.
Five other executives have pleaded guilty in the $11 billion accounting scandal at the company, which emerged from bankruptcy as MCI Inc. and has agreed to be acquired by Verizon Communications Inc.
Ebbers had the greatest motive to fool shareholders and the most to lose - including $400 million in personal loans backed by WorldCom stock - if the company's true, sagging finances became public, Johnson said.
"He was WorldCom, and WorldCom was Ebbers," the prosecutor said. "He built the company. He ran it. Of course he directed this fraud."
Ebbers, 63, is charged with fraud, conspiracy and false regulatory filings. The charges carry penalties that could lead to a sentence of up to 85 years in prison.
Testifying in his defense for nearly three days before his lawyers rested the defense yesterday, Ebbers said he deferred to former WorldCom Chief Financial Officer Scott D. Sullivan on money matters and never knew that his CFO was cooking the books.
Sullivan testified that Ebbers pressured him into committing the fraud by insisting that the company "hit our numbers," meaning that he wanted to please Wall Street. Sullivan pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Ebbers in exchange for leniency.
Ebbers told the jury that Sullivan "never told me he made an entry that wasn't right. If he had, we wouldn't be here today."
In his final argument yesterday, Johnson noted that Ebbers was the one facing margin calls on his personal loans while WorldCom's stock slid.
In September 2000, at the beginning of the 18-month fraud, Johnson said, Sullivan wanted to issue an earnings warning as the long-distance telephone company's finances worsened but Ebbers refused.
The defense hammered away at Sullivan on cross-examination, highlighting his past use of cocaine and marijuana, and his admitted past lies about the fraud.
Johnson reminded jurors that they are not required to like Sullivan. "You may frankly be appalled at what Scott Sullivan did," he said. "All you're being asked to do is believe him."
The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this article.