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Ebbers’ legacy, Brookhaven will always be linked

It is hard to overstate the impact Bernie Ebbers and WorldCom had on Brookhaven.

The billionaire called Lincoln County home while building the state’s only Fortune 500 company. The fallout from the collapse of WorldCom was felt across the nation — it remains one of the largest corporate accounting scandals in history — but especially here in Brookhaven.

When the company was riding high, fortunes were made. When it crashed, they were presumably lost.

Even today, people will refer to the city’s economy in “pre” and “post” WorldCom terms.

Ebbers was ordered released from prison Wednesday after serving about half of his federal sentence for securities fraud and other charges.

His health is failing. Attorney Graham Carner told the judge that Ebbers’ health had gone into such steep decline that it was possible he might not live another 18 months.

He is currently hospitalized.

At the time of his sentencing, many felt 25 years was too harsh a penalty for his alleged crimes. And the judge who sentenced him then, Barbara Jones, agreed that justice had been served and he should be released.

Even after being sentenced, some locals gave Ebbers the benefit of the doubt. They had a hard time believing the man who taught Sunday school at Easthaven had orchestrated an $11 billion fraud scheme.

Even some who lost money were hesitant to blame Ebbers. Comments on the newspaper’s Facebook page regarding his release were largely supportive.

Others felt differently, however.

Though the judge considering his early release received many letters supporting his release, she received some from people who did not want to see him freed. The judge said she had received letters from some who never recovered from huge financial losses and felt he should be left to die in prison.

Given the scale of losses from WorldCom’s collapse, it is understandable that people would still be upset.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Cowley told the judge that releasing Ebbers early would send “a terrible message to the rule of law” because it would cut his sentence in half.

But a provision in the First Step Act of 2018 made changes to the way compassionate release works. Ebbers was released through a petition for compassionate release. Generally, compassionate release is used when a prisoner has a terminal illness and is only expected to live a short time.

The First Step Act of 2018 was an effort to reduce federal prison populations, among other things.

The judge felt Ebbers qualified for compassionate release given his health condition. Based on descriptions of his deteriorating health, it’s hard to disagree with her.

Ebbers’ release from prison serves as a bookend to one of Brookhaven’s most unusual legacies. That a billionaire would call Lincoln County home is almost as unbelievable as the fact that his fortune was lost through an $11 billion fraud scandal.

For better or worse, Brookhaven and Ebbers will always be linked.