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Do Not Pass Go, Bernie

Light Reading and NDCF readers believe former WorldCom chief Bernie Ebbers should do some serious jail time, a poll this week has found (see The Ebbers Sentence: You Decide).

More than 1,000 people have taken part in the special poll, and the overwhelming majority (nearly 96 percent) believe that the one-time bouncer and basketball coach should go to the slammer for his part in the WorldCom fraud. Less than two percent of respondents think that he should keep his freedom.

Last week Ebbers was convicted on nine separate counts for his part in the largest corporate fraud in history, and now faces up to 85 years in prison. Sentencing is set for June 13, although his lawyers are planning to appeal the verdict (see Ebbers: GUILTY! and Ebbers Is Appealing).

Those taking part in our survey believe that Bernie should stay inside for quite some time. Around 35 percent of people say that the 63-year old Ebbers should go down for 10 to 20 years and nearly 33 percent say that he should spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Throughout the six-week trial, Ebbers’s defense team argued relentlessly that the former WorldCom supremo was unaware of what was going on at his company, instead laying the blame at the feet of Scott Sullivan, WorldCom’s then-CFO (see Ebbers Trial: Sex, Drugs & Numbers).

Although the jury clearly didn’t buy this argument, the case raises important questions about the role of CEOs and how responsible they are for what happens within their companies. Evidently, the people taking part in our survey feel that chief execs should carry the can for much of what happens on their watch.

When asked whether CEOs should answer for mistakes made by their underlings, well over half (57 percent) reply that yes, they should be culpable, albeit “within reason.” Nearly 31 percent are even more emphatic, saying that the "buck stops" with the man or woman at the helm. Fewer than 12 percent feel that the CEO is responsible for the company’s overall direction but not individuals’ actions.

But what about the future? Have we seen the last of the CEO scandals? To explore that question, we asked "What will make CEOs more accountable to their shareholders?" The vast majority of those surveyed (66 percent) say that stiffer sentences for fraud, insider trading, and other white collar crimes will be key.

Fewer than 11 percent of respondents are willing to put their faith in the U.S. Government’s Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was introduced to tighten up firms’ reporting in the aftermath of the scandals at WorldCom and Enron (see Sort Out Your Sox and SEC Extends Sarbanes Compliance).

Clearly, a sizable chunk of Light Reading and NDCF readers have precious little faith in human nature. Nearly a quarter of respondents say that "nothing at all" can be done to make CEOs more accountable, saying instead that "crooks will always figure out a way around rules."

To date, Ebbers is the highest-profile exec to have been convicted of fraud, though there are plenty of other scandal cleanups to come over the coming months.

Former Enron execs Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling are still waiting for their day in court, which many expect to come early in 2006.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently charged a number of former Qwest Communications International Inc. (NYSE: Q) execs with engaging in “a multi-faceted fraudulent scheme” designed to overstate the Denver-based carrier’s revenues between 1999 and 2002 (see SEC Charges Former Qwest Execs).

Two former top executives at Tyco International Ltd. -- L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO, and Mark Swartz, the former CFO -- are now on trial for grand larceny, securities fraud, and a laundry list of crimes connected to their ex-employer (see Tyco Sues Kozlowski).

With Ebbers’s sentencing nearly three months away, we will be keeping the poll open. If you haven’t voted already, tell us what you think (see The Ebbers Sentence: You Decide).

— James Rogers, Site Editor, Next-Gen Data Center Forum

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