He was the big-shot businessman who acted a lot like you and me. I was the sports editor and columnist at the state’s largest newspaper. As it turned out, the big-shot was not only worth billions of dollars, but loved college sports.
A man liked Bernie Ebbers got his way. It comes with the territory when you are smart enough, brash enough and enough of a riverboat gambler to turn an investment in a small long-distance into WorldCom, which in 1996 had become the fourth-largest long-distance company in America.
Bernie Ebbers. . . . WorldCom. . . .
To some of you the man and the company ring a bell. Or more appropriately, a bell that sounds a four-alarm fire. His company, WorldCom, went bankrupt in 2002 after an $11 billion accounting fraud case that eventually landed Ebbers and some of his employees in prison, and thousands of his employees without a job and a life savings of worthless WorldCom stock. It was at the time the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Ebbers and his ilk were found guilty of creating a false picture of profitability by, as we said in those days, cooking the books. A company once worth $185 billion was worthless.
Ebbers, 78, died Sunday in Brookhaven, Mississippi, the same place he lived when I got to know him. He got an early release from prison a little over a month ago, as the judge cited his deteriorating health and life expectancy. He was a little over 13 years into his 25-year sentence.
When I read the news of his death Monday, the first thing I thought about were all those people who believed in Bernie and lost all they had because he could never get enough. Many of them are friends of mine.
The WorldCom office was in Clinton, a city adjacent to Jackson, where I was the sports editor and columnist for the Clarion-Ledger. That sports tie is what led Bernie and I into a relationship that I appreciated for several years. One day I walked into Frank’s World Famous Biscuits in downtown Jackson, where WorldCom also had offices. There is more to the story.
If I remember correctly, Bernie spent most of his workdays in the Jackson office, just down the street from the Clarion-Ledger. My guess is downtown Jackson was closer to his home in Brookhaven, so Bernie chose to work in Jackson.
Bernie drove from Brookhaven to downtown Jackson most days, about an hour’s drive straight up Interstate 55. He drove a fairly late-model, white truck and wore blue jeans and cowboy boots every day. He really loved sports. A native Canadian, he got a basketball scholarship to Mississippi College and after graduating in physical education spent a year or so coaching in high school. Sports stayed in his blood.
Anyway, that day at Frank’s, a guy in jeans and cowboy boots motioned me over to his table, which was filled by four or five other men in really nice suits. “Donald Dodd,” I remember him saying, “I recognize you from your picture in the newspaper.”
I sat down, and thus began monthly or so meetings with Bernie Ebbers in places like Frank’s World Famous Biscuits, The Elite, or one of the other epicurean offerings downtown Jackson had to offer. If I walked in the door, Bernie would ask one of the suited guys seated beside him to move, then motion me over to take the guy’s seat. I ate a lot of famous biscuits and chicken-fried steak with Bernie, also a connoisseur of Southern cooking, and all I had to do was talk sports. He called it “the inside scoop.”
You could tell Bernie was used to getting his way. He was always nice to me, though, always buying lunch and rarely if ever talking about WorldCom or the telecom business, probably figuring I wouldn’t know what he was talking about anyway.
I liked Bernie Ebbers. This column makes him sound a little pushy, and eventually it came out that Bernie wasn’t such a nice guy. But I believe back in those days he loved getting away from his business world and talking something down to earth like SEC football. He always thanked me for my time, and I thanked him for lunch. (Sports editors making well under a six-figure salary should never offer to buy lunch for a billionaire.)
Bernie went to Easthaven Baptist Church in Brookhaven – “and I teach Sunday School,” he used to tell me. Monday afternoon as I wrote this column, not only did I think back to those entertaining times with Bernie, I also thought about his teaching Sunday School and what must have happened to see his life spiral so badly. In court proceedings he forever contended that he was no micromanager, that he didn’t know all the accounting crimes were being committed.
Chances are Bernie taught a few Sunday-School lessons on forgiveness and repentance. I hope he received and offered up a lot of both these past couple decades.
Ebbers unintentionally bumped into a fellow prisoner in September of 2017, and the prisoner went to Ebbers’ open cell later that day and beat him, according to court documents filed last year. The attack fractured bones around Bernie’s eyes and caused blunt head trauma and other injuries.
Bernie Ebbers, a man with the world at his feet years ago, was placed in solitary confinement. His health continued to deteriorate, and the strapping man that played basketball at Mississippi College saw his weight drop from 200 pounds to 147 pounds.
Family requested a compassionate release from prison. There are those who opposed it, but after a couple tries, in December, Bernie went back to Brookhaven to live out his final days. There are those who were so hurt by Ebbers they will never forgive him, and their stories and pain will go on. But what a sad, sad end to the story of Bernie Ebbers, a story that began with such promise over 30 years ago.