Tuesday, March 1, 2005

The Too-Dumb Defense

Bernie Ebbers portrays himself as a loser in order to get off.

Bernard J. Ebbers, the former WorldCom chief executive once hailed as one of the most brilliant telecommunications entrepreneurs ever, told a packed courtroom yesterday, “I don’t know about technology and I don’t know about finance and accounting.”

In taking the stand in his own defense, Mr. Ebbers displayed a folksy innocence that was part of the defense’s effort to cast him as someone who relied on others with greater expertise to handle the details of running WorldCom as it grew from a small regional reseller of phone services to one of the largest companies in American industry. Under questioning by his lawyer, Reid Weingarten, Mr. Ebbers also disputed the prosecution’s star witness, Scott D. Sullivan, WorldCom’s former chief financial officer, who testified that Mr. Ebbers directed the fraud. Mr. Ebbers said over and over that Mr. Sullivan never told him that his accounting changes “weren’t right” and that he did not recall conversations that Mr. Sullivan said they had.

“He has never told me he made an entry that wasn’t right,” Mr. Ebbers said. “If he had, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Mr. Ebbers also said he was ignorant about accounting in general. “I know what I don’t know,” he said, referring to his lack of understanding of the technology WorldCom sold as well as its finances.

He testified that he did poorly in college, where his “marks weren’t too good,” and that he bounced from one job to another, working as a milkman, basketball coach and warehouse manager, before he and a small group of investors started the predecessor of WorldCom in 1983.

Ain’t America great? Where else can you become a multimillionaire by claiming to be too dumb to play dead in a cowboy movie?