JACSKON, Miss. (WJTV) — The man who founded Mississippi’s only Fortune 500 Company — then went to prison in one of the largest accounting frauds in U.S. history — has died.
Bernie Ebbers was 78 years old.
The man known as the “Telecom Cowboy” was a controversial figure, who leaves behind a complicated legacy.
Bernie Ebbers took a small company and grew it into WorldCom, the nation’s second largest-long distance provider.
The company that grew with astonishing speed fell apart just as quickly, and ended up with Ebbers behind bars, facing a 25-year sentence.
“We have to take the good with the bad,” Said Senator John Horhn, remembering Ebbers.
Ebbers passed nearly a month after he was released early from prison because of his declining health.
Ebbers took WorldCom from an idea sketched in a Hattiesburg coffee shop. Through several acquisitions, it grew into a corporate giant with a sprawling headquarters in Clinton, where Ebbers played basketball at Mississippi College.
“He put Mississippi on the map,” Horhn said. “He employed a lot of people. He made a lot of money for a lot of people. It’s just that it didn’t end well for him and it didn’t end well for the company and for some of his employees.
Many people lost money when it started going downhill. In 2002, WorldCom filed for bankruptcy — the largest in U.S. history.
Ebbers was found guilty of conspiracy, securities fraud and making false regulatory filings. He blamed subordinates.
The case captured national attention, coming at the same time as other corporate scandals involving companies like Enron.
Senator Horhn says it’s important to remember that although what Ebbers did was wrong, he did leave a positive impact on our community.
He compared Ebbers to another controversial figure.
“He was in a lot of ways to me like Icarus,” Icarus said. “The mythical character who flies to close to the sun with some wings that he had made that included some wax. The wax melted and he crashed and burned. In a lot of ways that’s how I kinda think of Bernie.”
Ebbers was surrounded by family members when he died — no cause of death was given.
Senator Horhn explained that he was glad that Ebbers was granted an early release so that he could spend his final weeks with family surrounding him.