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One more WorldCom chapter is written

Few people have followed the trial of Bernie Ebbers closer than MBJ contributing writer Lynne Jeter.

In fact, it was an e-mail burst from Lynne that I received moments after news of the verdict broke that let me know that the former WorldCom chief had been found guilty on all counts.

Her story quickly followed, and we posted it to MBJ Online last Tuesday. That same story graces page one of this week’s issue.

The saga of Bernie Ebbers and WorldCom is one familiar to all of us. In late 2002 after extensive reporting on the situation at the Clinton-based telecom, Lynne wrote a book for John Wiley & Sons detailing the company’s implosion and the accusations of fraud and deceit leveled against key executives.

Of course, it was really a story about Bernie Ebbers — a tale of stunning success and colossal failure.

Back then…

As Lynne prepared for a book promotion tour in March 2003, we put together a Q&A with her to find out what it was like to write “Disconnected: Deceit and Betrayal at WorldCom.”

One of the first questions we asked: What kind of reaction have you had from the media and readers, especially those connected with WorldCom?

Her answer? “Everyone is very curious about WorldCom’s history. And it is a fascinating story. A few WorldCom employees would rather not see a book written at all, but by far, the majority of people associated with WorldCom that I’ve spoken with have been supportive and were anxious to relate their experiences,” she explained. “As LDDS co-founder Danny Dunnaway once said, ‘You couldn’t write this script and have somebody believe you.’”

And indeed, it does have the makings of a Hollywood script — scandal, intrigue, heroes, ne’er-do-wells, as well as the thousands of employees and investors who lost jobs, small fortunes and sizeable portions of their retirement funds in the company’s collapse.

And now?

I followed up that Q&A with a few new questions to Lynne last week:

JL: Were you surprised by the guilty verdict?

LJ: Stunned, but I thought the jury made the right call.

JL: Despite the conviction, there still seems to be a great deal of ambivalence about Bernie Ebbers. Do you think that people in Mississippi still want to give him the benefit of the doubt?

LJ: I do. When someone that people know and respect does something wrong, it’s a natural tendency to want to protect them, I think.

JL: Is it Bernie Ebbers’ ego and personality that helped make the WorldCom bankruptcy and its aftermath such a compelling story? It’s not really a business story; it’s been a Bernie story, hasn’t it?

LJ: It sure has been a Bernie story. He is such a complex and mysterious character, and he exuded to the world a folksy cowboy businessman persona. He was decidedly different.

JL: In your opinion, what’s the legacy of Bernie Ebbers and his place in Mississippi business?

LJ: Unfortunately, I believe some people will think he was simply lucky to have risen so high in the global marketplace.

But I think Bernie Ebbers was brilliant in many ways, and simply made some poor, immoral decisions after he surrounded himself with nothing but “yes-men.” You can’t stay on top that long if you don’t have a combination of brains, brawn and street smarts.

And now, it’s on to the appeal, and one more chapter in the story of WorldCom — and Bernie Ebbers.
Stay tuned.

Contact MBJ editor Jim Laird at jlaird@msbusiness.com.

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