WorldCom founder Bernard J. Ebbers, 65, is due to start serving a 25-year prison term tomorrow for his role in a massive accounting fraud. Ebbers, who has a heart ailment, will likely spend the rest of his life in prison, says the Washington Post. Also tomorrow, former Enron Corp. finance chief Andrew S. Fastow will be sentenced in Houston. He faces a maximum 10-year term in a plea deal for pocketing $45 million in a scheme to disguise mounting financial problems at the energy company.
The length of Ebbers’s sentence touches on one of the most controversial parts of the criminal justice system: How large a pound of flesh should society exact for white-collar crime? When the victims are diffuse, the crime complex, and the injuries economic, what kind of punishment constitutes justice? An executive who gambles his fate at a trial risks what amounts to a life term for fraud that can involve as little as $2.5 million, said University of Missouri law professor Frank Bowman. Crimes like first-degree murder, high-level drug dealing and espionage trigger similar sanctions. “That means you have to equate fiddling with the corporate books with first-degree murder or treason,” Bowman said. “My own sense is that any sentence over 20 years for anybody for an economic crime is hard to justify.”