Twenty-five years is a long time. In 1980, TCP/IP had just been invented. Ma Bell still ruled the telecom universe. Cisco didn’t exist, and a tiny company called Microsoft had just bought Disk Operating System (DOS) software from Seattle Computer.
In the world at large, there was the Berlin Wall and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” Ronald Reagan was elected our 40th President, the Cold War and the Blues Brothers’ mission from God.
So if ex-WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers serves the full 25-year prison term to which New York Judge Barbara Jones sentenced him last week, he will on Oct. 12, 2030, walk out into a world vastly different from today’s.
Most likely, its communications infrastructure will be unrecognizable to the man who once ran one of the most innovative communications networks in the world. Pundits have predicted scenarios ranging from a functioning interplanetary IP backbone to embedded addresses in everything from toaster ovens to cans of tuna fish.
Hard to believe? Maybe. But as I said, 25 years is a long time — long enough to serve as effective punishment for the man who destroyed billions in life savings, trashed careers and brought a once-proud company to its knees.
Even if Ebbers doesn’t serve his full term — he’ll be 88 in 2030, and there’s a chance for early parole — that 25-year sentence signals that justice has been served.
It’s not just the prison time. Ebbers has been stripped of his personal assets. Once worth more than US$1 billion, he’s down to about US$45 million. And even those assets will soon be distributed as partial (very partial) reparations to WorldCom investors.
The bottom line is that Ebbers lost it all: freedom, wealth, and professional and personal reputations. As I’ve said before, he’s now officially a crook. He’ll soon be a jailbird — a fate that doesn’t often befall the rich, powerful and well-connected, no matter how heinous their offenses.
But for once, the system worked. Punishment needs to be commensurate with the seriousness of the crime, or the rule of law becomes meaningless. Fortunately, in this case, it was. As Judge Jones said: “A sentence of anything less would not reflect the seriousness of this crime.”
And as I’ve noted earlier, the most serious aspect of Ebbers’ crime was the destruction of public trust. By creating an atmosphere in which leaders can’t be trusted, he did incalculable damage not only to WorldCom shareholders, employees and customers, but also to the entire legal and economic structure.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Stewart wrote: “Violations of the law are not victimless crimes. When [they occur], our confidence in the underlying fairness of the market is shattered. We are all victims.”
Stewart’s right. “Paper” crimes have real consequences — and to some extent, we’re all Ebbers’ victims.
They say Ebbers cried when the sentence was announced. I can believe it. Twenty-five years is a very long time to be separated from your family, your friends and your liberty.
But it’s not too long.
–Johna Till Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research, a leading independent technology research firm. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.