Now that my former boss Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom has been sentenced to 25 years in prison, it’s become easier to think of him as a ruthless criminal instead of a Baptist Sunday School teacher. It’s more comforting that way.
Ebbers claimed that he never read the documents which would have revealed WorldCom’s accounting fraud. After six years working for his company (customer service and tech support), I’m not surprised. I believe him.
Yes, Bernie was always proud of his ignorance of subjects which he felt didn’t concern him. He bought the world’s largest Internet backbone (UUNET) that happened to be owned by a local phone company (MFS) he was targeting, and later said he hadn’t appreciated the significance of what he was doing. He rarely used email. He liked to plow his soybean fields. He was a salesman, he testified, not an accountant. As the company began to crumble, he bought more of its stock. He lost millions.
Unfortunately for Bernie, the judge and jury in his trial didn’t accept his plea of ignorance as a valid defense. The modern CEO is responsible even for actions he doesn’t know about, they told him. Go to jail.
We want to think that an intelligent man, following his conscience, couldn’t possibly be responsible for the largest accounting fraud in US history. The truth isn’t so comforting.
If Wall Street lauded Bernie Ebbers as the man who was doing everything right, it’s not surprising that Bernie Ebbers didn’t believe any differently. Scott Sullivan, “the best CFO in the business,” was privately given a chance by the WorldCom board of directors to avoid trouble by admitting he was wrong. Instead, he refused to take the easy way out and kept insisting that his accounting theories were legitimate. And Scott Sullivan didn’t teach Sunday School, as far as I know. He later changed his mind about his accounting theories, but the point is that at first, even the architect of the accounting fraud didn’t believe he was committing fraud.
We would prefer to believe that Bernie Ebbers was a ruthless criminal (like those other guys) instead of a Sunday School teacher (like some of us). We would prefer to believe that Germans in the 1930s and 1940s (who followed a charismatic national leader into war) were more sinister than us (who would never do such a thing).
If we can only separate the sinners from the rest of us, we will feel safer. Those other guys need to cry out for God’s mercy, but we already have all that we need. We would ask for mercy if we needed it, but we don’t need mercy.