Updated: As Ebbers Enters Prison, Some Question the Justice of the Sentence

Bernard J. Ebbers, 65, entered federal prison Tuesday to start his 25-year sentence for his part in the $11 billion accounting fraud at WorldCom Inc. that led to bankruptcy for the company he founded and financial pain for investors.

On the same day that Ebbers drove his Mercedes into the Oakdale Correctional Complex in Louisiana, Andrew S. Fastow, the former Enron Corp. finance chief, was sentenced to six years in prison and two years of community service. Fastow enriched himself by more than $45 million in the Enron scandal, but, facing a 98-count indictment, agreed to testify against top executives. He faced a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Ebbers’ sentence, by contrast, means he will likely serve the rest of his life in prison.

Washington Post writers Carrie Johnson and Brooke A. Masters posed these questions Monday: “How large a pound of flesh should society exact for serious white-collar crime? When the victims are diffuse, the crime complex and the injuries economic, what kind of punishment constitutes justice?”

Historically, white-collar criminals have received light sentences or probation, even for big-dollar crimes. Michael Milken, the so-called “junk bond king,” was initially sentenced to 10 years for fraud, but a judge reduced his sentence in 1991 and he served only two years.

Sentiment has shifted. On Monday, Mehdi Gabayzadeh, the former CEO of American Tissue Inc. was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being convicted of orchestrating a $300 million fraud. And in July, a three-judge panel for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan upheld the conviction and 25-year sentence for Ebbers.

The same prison terms have been recommended for crimes such as first-degree murder, high-level drug dealing and espionage, University of Missouri law professor Frank Bowman told the Post.

"That means you have to equate fiddling with the corporate books with first-degree murder or treason," Bowman said. "My own sense is that any sentence over 20 years for anybody for an economic crime is hard to justify."

Doug Hanson, a former Qwest CEO, told the Rocky Mountain News that “there’s no question” that his old friend Ebbers is guilty. "But is 25 years the right sentence? Killers serve less. It seems like five, seven, 10 years might be more appropriate. The justice system seems a little skewed."

A lawyer for Ebbers, Reid H. Weingarten, said in an e-mail that sentence was upheld to “appease the howling mob” demanding his client’s head.

Vicki Rogers of Madison, Miss., is still angry after she and her husband invested $14,000 in WorldCom, only to see it increase to $30,000, then lose all value.

"I just hope it's not a country club jail Bernie Ebbers goes to," she told The Clarion-Ledger. "I want him to go to jail, and I want him to have a hard time at it. We haven't recovered financially from it. I don't know how we can recover from it. My husband is 55, and that (money) was toward retirement. All of a sudden you don't have it when you had a good nest egg.”

Prosecutors and securities regulators, on the other hand, say that the sight of their peers in handcuffs sends a powerful message to would-be white-collar criminals. "You want people to understand that just because they're in high places, they make a lot of money and they can hire fabulous lawyers, that they're not going to walk away with a slap on the wrist," former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Harvey L. Pitt told the Post. "If you ask me, 'Did Bernie Ebbers destroy lives?' I would tell you that his conduct did."

This article contains updated material from the previously published version.

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