Case studies are required to complete the unit Assignments. If you do not have the case studies, you will need to follow the purchasing directions located in your Syllabus on how to purchase the required Harvard coursepack materials.Case Study Analysis: Accounting Fraud at WorldComKnowing how to analyze a case will help you attack virtually any business problem. A case study helps you learn by immersing you in a real-world business issues—and makes you a decision-maker. A case presents facts about a particular organization and you must focus on the most important facts and use the information to determine the best (of multiple alternatives) course(s) of action to deal with the problems you identify.A case study analysis must not just summarize the case. It should identify key issues and problems, and outline and assess alternative courses of action.In this case, you will have an opportunity to analyze the factors that led senior executives at WorldCom to launch and sustain an accounting fraud. This case will give you an opportunity to look at the various controls that should have been in place and to analyze them.In addition to the requirements for the analysis of a case study covered below, please specifically answer the following questions:What are the pressures that lead executives and managers to “cook the books?”What is the boundary between earnings smoothing or earnings management and fraudulent reporting?Why were the actions taken by WorldCom managers not detected earlier? What processes or systems should be in place to prevent or detect quickly the types of actions that occurred in WorldCom?Were the external auditors and board of directors blameworthy in this case? Why or why not?Betty Vinson: Victim or villain? Should criminal fraud charges have been brought against her? How should employees react when ordered by their employer to do something they do not believe in or feel uncomfortable doing?Required for the Analysis of a Case Study:Provide a 4–6 page case study analysis using the following format:Format: Must include these headersTitle pageCompany and Situation: Describe the Company and SituationTo begin your case study analysis, discuss the critical incidents that have contributed to the current position of the company. Here you must identify the most important facts surrounding the case.Does the problem or challenge facing the company come from a changing environment, new opportunity, a declining market share, or inefficient internal or external business processes?Strengths, Weaknesses and Alternatives: Identify Strengths and Weaknesses as well as AlternativesExamine the value creation functions of the company and specify alternative courses of action.List the courses of action the company can take to solve its problem or meet the challenge it faces. What changes to organizational processes would be required by each alternative? What management policy would be required to implement each alternative?Remember, there is a difference between what an organization “should do” and what that organization actually “can do.” Some solutions are too expensive or operationally difficult to implement, and you should avoid solutions that are beyond the organization’s resources. Important: Identify the constraints that will limit the solutions available. Is each alternative executable given these constraints?Implementations: Analyze ImplementationsThis portion of the case study analysis requires that you identify and analyze the structure and control systems that the company is using to implement its business strategies. Evaluate organizational change, levels of hierarchy, employee rewards, conflicts, and other issues that are important to the company you are analyzing.Recommendations: Make RecommendationsThe final part of your case study analysis should include your recommendations for the company. Every recommendation you make should be based on and supported by the context of your case study analysis, i.e., what you have already written.Additional Questions: Answer the additional questions as shown below. Each question should be placed in bold as header:What are the pressures that lead executives and managers to “cook the books?”What is the boundary between earnings smoothing or earnings management and fraudulent reporting?Why were the actions taken by WorldCom managers not detected earlier? What processes or systems should be in place to prevent or detect quickly the types of actions that occurred in WorldCom?Were the external auditors and board of directors blameworthy in this case? Why or why not?Betty Vinson: Victim or villain? Should criminal fraud charges have been brought against her? How should employees react when ordered by their employer to do something they do not believe in or feel uncomfortable doing?References: Reference pageAccess the case study template formatted in APA.The case analysis should be a minimum of four pages, double-spaced. Check for correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and usage. Citations should use APA style.Your analysis of this case and your written submission should reflect an understanding of the critical issues of the case; integrate the material covered in the text and present concise and well-reasoned justifications for the stance that you takeFor the exclusive use of W. Schmidt, 2016.
Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
WorldCom could not have failed as a result of the actions of a limited number of individuals. Rather, there
was a broad breakdown of the system of internal controls, corporate governance and individual responsibility,
all of which worked together to create a culture in which few persons took responsibility until it was too late.
— Richard Thornburgh, former U.S. attorney general1
On July 21, 2002, WorldCom Group, a telecommunications company with more than $30 billion in
revenues, $104 billion in assets, and 60,000 employees, filed for bankruptcy protection under
Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Between 1999 and 2002, WorldCom had overstated its pretax income by at least $7 billion, a deliberate miscalculation that was, at the time, the largest in
history. The company subsequently wrote down about $82 billion (more than 75%) of its reported
assets.2 WorldCom’s stock, once valued at $180 billion, became nearly worthless. Seventeen thousand
employees lost their jobs; many left the company with worthless retirement accounts. The company’s
bankruptcy also jeopardized service to WorldCom’s 20 million retail customers and on government
contracts affecting 80 million Social Security beneficiaries, air traffic control for the Federal Aviation
Association, network management for the Department of Defense, and long-distance services for
both houses of Congress and the General Accounting Office.
WorldCom’s origins can be traced to the 1983 breakup of AT&T. Small, regional companies could
now gain access to AT&T’s long-distance phone lines at deeply discounted rates.3 LDDS (an acronym
for Long Distance Discount Services) began operations in 1984, offering services to local retail and
commercial customers in southern states where well-established long-distance companies, such as
MCI and Sprint, had little presence. LDDS, like other of these small regional companies, paid to use
or lease facilities belonging to third parties. For example, a call from an LDDS customer in
New Orleans to Dallas might initiate on a local phone company’s line, flow to LDDS’s leased
network, and then transfer to a Dallas local phone company to be completed. LDDS paid both the
1 Matthew Bakarak, “Reports Detail WorldCom Execs’ Domination,” AP Online, June 9, 2003.
2 WorldCom’s writedown was, at the time, the second largest in U.S. history, surpassed only by the $101 billion writedown
taken by AOL Time Warner in 2002.
3 Lynne W. Jeter, Disconnected: deceit and betrayal at WorldCom (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003), pp. 17–18.
Professor Robert S. Kaplan and Senior Researcher David Kiron, Global Research Group, prepared this case. The case was developed from
published sources and draws heavily from Dennis R. Beresford, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, and C.B. Rogers, Jr., “Report of Investigation,”
Special Investigative Committee of the Board of Directors of WorldCom, Inc., March 31, 2003. References to this report are identified by
alphabetic letters which refer to information in the endnotes. HBS cases are developed solely as the basis for class discussion. Cases are not
intended to serve as endorsements, sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective management.
Copyright © 2004, 2005, 2007 President and Fellows of Harvard College. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, call 1800-545-7685, write Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, MA 02163, or go to No part of this publication
may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission of Harvard Business School.
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Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
New Orleans and Dallas phone company providers for using their local networks, and the
telecommunications company whose long-distance network it leased to connect New Orleans to
Dallas. These line-cost expenses were a significant cost for all long-distance carriers.
LDDS started with about $650,000 in capital but soon accumulated $1.5 million in debt since it
lacked the technical expertise to handle the accounts of large companies that had complex switching
systems. The company turned to Bernard J. (Bernie) Ebbers, one of its original nine investors, to run
things. Ebbers had previously been employed as a milkman, bartender, bar bouncer, car salesman,
truck driver, garment factory foreman, high school basketball coach, and hotelier. While he lacked
technology experience, Ebbers later joked that his most useful qualification was being “the meanest
SOB they could find.”4 Ebbers took less than a year to make the company profitable.
Ebbers focused the young firm on internal growth, acquiring small long-distance companies with
limited geographic service areas and consolidating third-tier long-distance carriers with larger
market shares. This strategy delivered economies of scale that were critical in the crowded longdistance reselling market. “Because the volume of bandwidth determined the costs, more money
could be made by acquiring larger pipes, which lowered per unit costs,” one observer remarked.5
LDDS grew rapidly through acquisitions across the American South and West and expanded
internationally through acquisitions in Europe and Latin America. (See Exhibit 1 for a selection of
mergers between 1991 and 2002.) In 1989, LDDS became a public company through a merger with
Advantage Companies, a company that was already trading on Nasdaq. By the end of 1993, LDDS
was the fourth-largest long-distance carrier in the United States. After a shareholder vote in May
1995, the company officially became known as WorldCom.
The telecommunications industry evolved rapidly in the 1990s. The industry’s basic market
expanded beyond fixed-line transmission of voice and data to include the transport of data packets
over fiber-optic cables that could carry voice, data, and video. The Telecommunications Act of 1996
permitted long-distance carriers to compete for local service, transforming the industry’s competitive
landscape. Companies scrambled to obtain the capability to provide their customers a single source
for all telecommunications services.
In 1996, WorldCom entered the local service market by purchasing MFS Communications
Company, Inc., for $12.4 billion. MFS’s subsidiary, UUNET, gave WorldCom a substantial
international presence and a large ownership stake in the world’s Internet backbone. In 1997,
WorldCom used its highly valued stock to outbid British Telephone and GTE (then the nation’s
second-largest local phone company) to acquire MCI, the nation’s second-largest long-distance
company. The $42 billion price represented, at the time, the largest takeover in U.S. history. By 1998,
WorldCom had become a full-service telecommunications company, able to supply virtually any size
business with a full complement of telecom services. WorldCom’s integrated service packages and its
Internet strengths gave it an advantage over its major competitors, AT&T and Sprint. Analysts hailed
Ebbers and Scott Sullivan, the CFO who engineered the MCI merger, as industry leaders.6
In 1999, WorldCom attempted to acquire Sprint, but the U.S. Justice Department, in July 2000,
refused to allow the merger on terms that were acceptable to the two companies. The termination of
this merger was a significant event in WorldCom’s history. WorldCom executives realized that largescale mergers were no longer a viable means of expanding the business.a WorldCom employees
4 Jeter, p. 27.
5 Jeter, p. 30.
6 CFO Magazine awarded Sullivan its CFO Excellence award in 1998; Fortune listed Ebbers as one of its “People to Watch 2001.”
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Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
noted that after the turndown of the Sprint merger, “Ebbers appeared to lack a strategic sense of
direction, and the Company began drifting.”b
Corporate Culture
WorldCom’s growth through acquisitions led to a hodgepodge of people and cultures. One
accountant recalled, “We had offices in places we never knew about. We’d get calls from people we
didn’t even know existed.” WorldCom’s finance department at the Mississippi corporate
headquarters maintained the corporate general ledger, which consolidated information from the
incompatible legacy accounting systems of more than 60 acquired companies. WorldCom’s
headquarters for its network operations, which managed one of the largest Internet carrier businesses
in the world, was based in Texas. The human resources department was in Florida, and the legal
department in Washington, D.C.
None of the company’s senior lawyers was located in Jackson. [Ebbers] did not include the
Company’s lawyers in his inner circle and appears to have dealt with them only when he felt it
necessary. He let them know his displeasure with them personally when they gave advice—
however justified—that he did not like. In sum, Ebbers created a culture in which the legal
function was less influential and less welcome than in a healthy corporate environment.c
A former manager added, “Each department had its own rules and management style. Nobody
was on the same page. In fact, when I started in 1995, there were no written policies.”7 When Ebbers
was told about an internal effort to create a corporate code of conduct, he called the project a
“colossal waste of time.”d
WorldCom encouraged “a systemic attitude conveyed from the top down that employees should
not question their superiors, but simply do what they were told.”e Challenges to more senior
managers were often met with denigrating personal criticism or threats. In 1999, for example, Buddy
Yates, director of WorldCom General Accounting, warned Gene Morse, then a senior manager at
WorldCom’s Internet division, UUNET, “If you show those damn numbers to the f****ing auditors,
I’ll throw you out the window.”8
Ebbers and Sullivan frequently granted compensation beyond the company’s approved salary and
bonus guidelines for an employee’s position to reward selected, and presumably loyal, employees,
especially those in the financial, accounting, and investor relations departments. The company’s
human resources department virtually never objected to such special awards.9
Employees felt that they did not have an independent outlet for expressing concerns about
company policies or behavior. Several were unaware of the existence of an internal audit department,
and others, knowing that Internal Audit reported directly to Sullivan, did not believe it was a
productive outlet for questioning financial transactions.f
7 Jeter, p. 55.
8 Personal correspondence, Gene Morse.
9 Kay E. Zekany, Lucas W. Braun, and Zachary T. Warder, “Behind Closed Doors at WorldCom: 2001,” Issues in Accounting
Education (February 2004): 103.
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Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
Expense-to-Revenue (E/R) Ratio
In the rapid expansion of the 1990s, WorldCom focused on building revenues and acquiring
capacity sufficient to handle expected growth. According to Ebbers, in 1997, “Our goal is not to
capture market share or be global. Our goal is to be the No. 1 stock on Wall Street.”10 Revenue growth
was a key to increasing the company’s market value.11 The demand for revenue growth was “in
every brick in every building,” said one manager.g “The push for revenue encouraged managers to
spend whatever was necessary to bring revenue in the door, even if it meant that the long-term costs
of a project outweighed short-term gains. . . . As a result, WorldCom entered into long-term fixed rate
leases for network capacity in order to meet the anticipated increase in customer demand.”h
The leases contained punitive termination provisions. Even if capacity were underutilized,
WorldCom could avoid lease payments only by paying hefty termination fees. Thus, if customer
traffic failed to meet expectations, WorldCom would pay for line capacity that it was not using.
Industry conditions began to deteriorate in 2000 due to heightened competition, overcapacity, and
the reduced demand for telecommunications services at the onset of the economic recession and the
aftermath of the dot-com bubble collapse. Failing telecommunications companies and new entrants
were drastically reducing their prices, and WorldCom was forced to match. The competitive situation
put severe pressure on WorldCom’s most important performance indicator, the E/R ratio (line-cost
expenditures to revenues), closely monitored by analysts and industry observers.
WorldCom’s E/R ratio was about 42% in the first quarter of 2000, and the company struggled to
maintain this percentage in subsequent quarters while facing revenue and pricing pressures and its
high committed line costs. Ebbers made a personal, emotional speech to senior staff about how he
and other directors would lose everything if the company did not improve its performance.i
As business operations continued to decline, however, CFO Sullivan decided to use accounting
entries to achieve targeted performance. Sullivan and his staff used two main accounting tactics:
accrual releases in 1999 and 2000, and capitalization of line costs in 2001 and 2002.12
Accrual Releases
WorldCom estimated its line costs monthly. Although bills for line costs were often not received
or paid until several months after the costs were incurred, generally accepted accounting principles
required the company to estimate these expected payments and match this expense with revenues in
its income statement. Since the cash for this expense had not yet been paid, the offsetting entry was
an accounting accrual to a liability account for the future payment owed to the line owner. When
WorldCom paid the bills to the line owner, it reduced the liability accrual by the amount of the cash
payment. If bills came in lower than estimated, the company could reverse (or release) some of the
accruals, with the excess flowing into the income statement as a reduction in line expenses.
10 R. Charan, J. Useen, and A. Harrington, “Why Companies Fail,” Fortune (Asia), May 27, 2002, pp. 36–45.
11 Zekany et al., p. 103.
12 The company also used aggressive revenue-recognition methods at the end of each reporting quarter to “close the gap” with
Ebbers’s aggressive revenue forecasts; see Zekany et al., pp. 112–114, and Beresford, Katzenbach, and Rogers, Jr., pp. 13–16.
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Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
Throughout 1999 and 2000, Sullivan told staff to release accruals that he claimed were too high
relative to future cash payments. Sullivan apparently told several business unit managers that the
MCI merger had created a substantial amount of such overaccruals. Sullivan directed David Myers
(controller) to deal with any resistance from senior managers to the accrual releases.
In one instance, Myers asked David Schneeman, acting CFO of UUNET, to release line accruals for
his business unit. When Schneeman asked for an explanation, Myers responded: “No, you need to
book the entry.” When Schneeman refused, Myers told him in another e-mail, “I guess the only way I
am going to get this booked is to fly to D.C. and book it myself. Book it right now, I can’t wait another
minute.”j Schneeman still refused. Ultimately, staff in the general accounting department made
Myers’s desired changes to the general ledger. (See Exhibit 2 for a partial organizational chart.)
In another instance, Myers asked Timothy Schneberger, director of international fixed costs, to
release $370 million in accruals. “Here’s your number,” Myers reportedly told Schneberger, asking
him to book the $370 million adjustment. Yates, director of General Accounting, told Schneberger the
request was from “the Lord Emperor, God himself, Scott [Sullivan].” When Schneberger refused to
make the entry and also refused to provide the account number to enable Myers to make the entry,
Betty Vinson, a senior manager in General Accounting, obtained the account number from a lowlevel analyst in Schneberger’s group and had one of her subordinates make the entry.k Employees in
the general accounting department also made accrual releases from some departments without
consulting the departments’ senior management. In 2000, General Accounting released $281 million
against line costs from accruals in the tax department’s accounts, an entry that the tax group did not
learn about until 2001.
Over a seven-quarter period between 1999 and 2000, WorldCom released $3.3 billion worth of
accruals, most at the direct request of Sullivan or Myers. Several business units were left with
accruals for future cash payments that were well below the actual amounts they would have to pay
when bills arrived in the next period.
Expense Capitalization
By the first quarter of 2001, so few accruals were left to release that this tactic was no longer
available to achieve the targeted E/R ratio.l Revenues, however, continued to decline, and Sullivan,
through his lieutenants Myers and Yates, urged senior managers to maintain the 42% E/R ratio.
Senior staff described this target as “wildly optimistic,” “pure fantasy,” and “impossible.” One senior
executive described the pressure as “unbearable—greater than he had ever experienced in his
fourteen years with the company.”m
Sullivan devised a creative solution. He had his staff identify the costs of excess network capacity.
He reasoned that these costs could be treated as a capital expenditure, rather than as an operating
cost, since the contracted excess capacity gave the company an opportunity to enter the market
quickly at some future time when demand was stronger than current levels. An accounting manager
in 2000 had raised this possibility of treating periodic line costs as a capital expenditure but had been
rebuffed by Yates: “David [Myers] and I have reviewed and discussed your logic of capitalizing
excess capacity and can find no support within the current accounting guidelines that would allow
for this accounting treatment.”n
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Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
In April 2001, however, Sullivan decided to stop recognizing expenses for unused network
capacity.13 He directed Myers and Yates to order managers in the company’s general accounting
department to capitalize $771 million of non-revenue-generating line expenses into an asset account,
“construction in progress.” The accounting managers were subsequently told to reverse $227 million
of the capitalized amount and to make a $227 million accrual release from ocean-cable liability.
WorldCom’s April 26, 2001 press release and subsequent 10-Q quarterly report filed with the U.S.
Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reported $4.1 billion of line costs and capital
expenditures that included $544 million of capitalized line costs. With $9.8 billion in reported
revenues, WorldCom’s line-cost E/R ratio was announced at 42% rather than the 50% it would have
been without the reclassification and accrual release.o (Exhibit 3 shows a selection of WorldCom
false statements in filings to the SEC.)
General Accounting Department
Betty Vinson, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, joined WorldCom in 1996, when she was 40 years
old, as a manager in the international accounting division. She soon developed a reputation as a
hardworking, loyal employee who would do “anything you told her” and often voluntarily worked
extra hours at night, while at home, and on vacation.14 Her good work soon led to a promotion to
senior manager in General Accounting. In October 2000, Vinson and her colleague Troy Normand
(another manager in General Accounting) were called into their boss’s office. Their boss, Yates, told
them that Myers and Sullivan wanted them to release $828 million of line accruals into the income
statement. Vinson and Normand were “shocked” by their bosses’ proposal and told Yates that the
proposal was “not good accounting.”15 Yates replied that he was not happy about the transfer either,
but after Myers had assured him that it would not happen again, he had agreed to go along. After
some debate, Vinson and Normand agreed to make the transfer. When the company publicly
reported its third-quarter results, however, Vinson and Normand reconsidered their decision and
told Yates that they were planning to resign.
Ebbers heard about the accountants’ concerns and (according to another WorldCom employee)
told Myers that the accountants would not be placed in such a difficult position again. A few days
later, Sullivan talked to Vinson and Normand about their resignation plans: “Think of us as an
aircraft carrier. We have planes in the air. Let’s get the planes landed. Once they are landed, if you
still want to leave, then leave. But not while the planes are in the air.”16
Sullivan assured them that they were doing nothing illegal and that he would take full
responsibility for their actions. Vinson decided against quitting. She earned more than her husband,
and her WorldCom position paid for the family’s insurance benefits. She knew that it would be
difficult to find alternative work in the community with comparable compensation. Moreover, while
she and Normand had doubts about the accounting transfers, they believed that Sullivan, with his
“whiz kid” CFO reputation, probably knew what he was doing.
13 Sullivan’s rationale, formally described in a two-page white paper, was rejected by the SEC, independent auditors, and
WorldCom’s own senior managers.
14 Susan Pulliman, “WorldCom Whistleblowing,” The Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2003.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid., p. 1.
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Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
In April 2001, Vinson and Normand were again placed in a difficult position, except this time the
position was, from Vinson’s perspective, even less defensible. Revenues in the quarter were worse
than expected, and Sullivan wanted them to transfer $771 million of line costs into capital
expenditures.17 Vinson was again shocked at the request but was reluctant to quit without another
job. She knew Myers and Yates had already acquiesced to Sullivan’s request. It was her job to
distribute the amount across five capital accounts. She felt trapped but eventually made the entries
and backdated them to February 2001.
Vinson continued to make similar entries throughout 2001 but began losing sleep, withdrawing
from workers, and losing weight. Each time she hoped it would be the last, yet the pressure
continued. In early 2002, she received a raise (to roughly $80,000) and a promotion to director. In
April 2002, Yates, Normand, and Vinson reviewed the first-quarter report, which included $818
million in capitalized line costs. They also learned that achieving Ebbers’s projections would require
making similar entries for the remainder of the year. They made a pact to stop making such entries.
Internal Audit
Cynthia Cooper, a strong-willed, 38-year-old, nine-year WorldCom veteran, headed WorldCom’s
24-member internal audit department. Cooper had grown up in Clinton, Mississippi, WorldCom’s
headquarters since 1998. Her high school teacher of accounting was the mother of one of her senior
auditors. Gene Morse also was working in Internal Audit, as a senior manager; he had transferred
after Yates threatened him, in October 1999, about speaking to external auditors. Internal Audit
reported directly to CFO Sullivan for most purposes. It conducted primarily operational audits to
measure business unit performance and enforce spending controls. Arthur Andersen, WorldCom’s
independent auditors, performed the financial audits to assess the reliability and integrity of the
publicly reported financial information. Andersen reported to the audit committee of the company’s
board of directors.18
In August 2001, Cooper began a routine operational audit of WorldCom’s capital expenditures.
Sullivan instructed Myers to restrict the scope of Cooper’s inquiry: “We are not looking for a
comprehensive Capex audit but rather very in depth in certain areas and spending.” Cooper’s audit
revealed that Corporate had capital expenditures of $2.3 billion. By way of comparison, WorldCom’s
operations and technology group, which ran the company’s entire telecommunications network, had
capital expenditures of $2.9 billion. Internal Audit requested an explanation of Corporate’s $2.3
billion worth of projects. Cooper’s team received a revised chart indicating that Corporate had only
$174 million in expenditures. A footnote reference in this chart indicated that the remainder of the
$2.3 billion included a metro lease buyout, line costs, and some corporate-level accruals.
In March 2002, the head of the wireless business unit complained to Cooper about a $400 million
accrual in his business for expected future cash payments and bad-debt expenses that had been
transferred away to pump up company earnings. Both Sullivan and the Arthur Andersen team had
supported the transfer. Cooper asked one of the Andersen auditors to explain the transfer, but he
17 This figure was subsequently reduced to $544 million when Sullivan and Myers found $227 million worth of accruals that
could be released for the quarter.
18 This audit was described as operational in nature, with an emphasis on actual spending in the field, capitalization of labor
costs, and cash management. Internal Audit focused on operational and not financial statement audits at this time in order to
avoid duplicating the work Andersen was doing; one employee told us that Internal Audit also wanted to avoid being seen as
digging in Scott Sullivan’s “ backyard” when the group reported to him. (Beresford, Katzenbach, and Rogers, Jr., p. 119.)
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Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
refused, telling her that he took orders only from Sullivan. Morse recalled: “That was like putting a
red flag in front of a bull. She came back to me and said, ‘Go dig.’”19
Cooper brought the issue to WorldCom’s audit committee but was told by Sullivan, after the audit
committee meeting, to stay away from the wireless business unit. Cooper recalled Sullivan screaming
at her in a way she had never been talked to before, by anyone.p
Also in March 2002, SEC investigators sent WorldCom a surprise “request for information.” The
SEC wanted to examine company data to learn how WorldCom could be profitable while other
telecom companies were reporting large losses.
Cooper decided, unilaterally and without informing Sullivan, to expand Internal Audit’s scope by
conducting a financial audit. Cooper asked Morse, who had good computer expertise, to access the
company’s computerized journal entries. Such access was granted only with Sullivan’s permission,
which they definitely did not have. But Morse, anticipating a need for unlimited access to the
company’s financial systems, had previously persuaded a senior manager in WorldCom’s IT
department to allow him to use the systems to test new software programs.
The software enabled Morse to find the original journal entry for virtually any expense. Morse
worked at night, when his activities were less likely to clog the network.20 By day, Morse examined
his downloaded materials in the audit library, a small windowless room. He copied incriminating
data onto a CD-ROM so that the company could not subsequently destroy the evidence. Morse, a
gregarious father of three, was so concerned with secrecy that he did not tell his wife what he was
doing and instructed her not to touch his briefcase.
The Outside Auditor: Arthur Andersen
WorldCom’s independent external auditor from 1990 to 2002 was Arthur Andersen. Andersen
considered WorldCom to be its “flagship” and most “highly coveted” client, the firm’s “Crown
Jewel.”q Andersen viewed its relationship with WorldCom as long term and wanted to be considered
as a committed member of WorldCom’s team. One indicator of its commitment came after the
company merged with MCI. Andersen, which had a Mississippi-based team of 10–12 people working
full time on WorldCom’s audits, underbilled the company and justified the lower charges as a
continuing investment in its WorldCom relationship.
Originally, Andersen did its audit “the old-fashioned way,” testing thousands of details of
individual transactions and reviewing and confirming account balances in WorldCom’s general
ledger. As WorldCom’s operations expanded through mergers and increased scope of services,
Andersen adopted more efficient and sophisticated audit procedures, based on analytic reviews and
risk assessments. The auditors focused on identifying risks and assessing whether the client company
had adequate controls in place to mitigate those risks, for example, for mistakenly or deliberately
misrepresenting financial data. In practice, Andersen reviewed processes, tested systems, and
assessed whether business unit groups received correct information from the field. Its auditors
assumed that the information recorded by General Accounting was valid. It typically requested the
same 20 to 30 schedules of high-level summaries to review each quarter, including a schedule of
19 Susan Pulliman and Deborah Solomon, “Uncooking the Books,” The Wall Street Journal, October 30, 2002.
20 In an early effort, Morse attempted to download a large number of transactions from one account and crashed the system,
which drew attention to his efforts.
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Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
topside entries made by General Accounting directly to the corporate general ledger after the close of
a quarter.r
Andersen also assessed the risk that expenditures for payroll, spare parts, movable parts, and
capital projects were being properly recorded and classified as expenses or assets by reviewing the
relevant approval process. For line costs, Andersen assessed the risk that line-cost liabilities might be
understated or overstated by testing whether the domestic telco accounting group received accurate
information from the field. It did not perform comparable tests for the international line-cost group
even after WorldCom employees told Andersen’s U.K. audit team about a corporate reversal of $34
million in line-cost accruals after the first quarter of 2000.s Andersen focused primarily on the risk
that WorldCom revenues would be misstated because of errors or inaccurate records, not by
deliberate misrepresentation.
Between 1999 and 2001, Andersen’s risk management software program rated WorldCom as a
“high-risk” client for committing fraud, a conclusion that its auditors upgraded to “maximum risk”
because of volatility in the telecommunications industry, the company’s active merger and
acquisition plans, and its reliance on a high stock price for acquisitions. The Andersen concurring
partner said at the time of the 1999 risk upgrade, “If this job is not maximum, none are.”t The
engagement manager stated that there were “probably few other engagements where [Andersen]
ha[d] a higher risk.”
But the Andersen audit team for WorldCom did not modify its analytic audit approach and
continued to audit WorldCom as a “moderate-risk” client. Andersen could have identified the
fraudulent topside entries (accrual reversals and capitalized line costs) from a review of the
company’s general ledger, its primary transactional accounting record.u WorldCom, however,
repeatedly refused Andersen’s request to access the computerized general ledger. Also, Andersen’s
analytic review procedures, properly performed, should have triggered a search for accounting
irregularities when WorldCom’s quarterly financial statements reported stable financial ratios during
a period of severe decline in the telecommunications industry: “[M]anagement’s ability to continue to
meet aggressive revenue growth targets, and maintain a 42% line cost expense-to-revenue ratio,
should have raised questions. Instead of wondering how this could be, Andersen appeared to have
been comforted by the absence of variances. Indeed, this absence led Andersen to conclude that no
follow-up work was required.”v
Myers, Stephanie Scott, and Mark Willson instructed WorldCom staff about what information
could and could not be shared with Andersen. When Andersen auditors asked to speak with Ronald
Lomenzo, senior vice president of financial operations, who oversaw international line-cost accruals,
the request was refused. One employee commented: “Myers or Stephanie Scott would never permit it
to happen.”w In 1998, WorldCom’s treasurer told the person in charge of security for WorldCom’s
computerized consolidation and financial reporting system never to give Andersen access. One
employee said that she was specifically instructed not to tell Andersen that senior management
orchestrated adjustments to domestic line-cost accruals. Myers told one employee who had continued
to talk with Andersen’s U.K. auditors, “Do not have any more meetings with Andersen for any
reason. . . . Mark Willson has already told you this once. Don’t make me ask you again.”x
WorldCom also withheld information, altered documents, omitted information from requested
materials, and transferred millions of dollars in account balances to mislead Andersen. In fact, special
monthly revenue reports were prepared for Andersen:
WorldCom provided Andersen with altered MonRevs [monthly revenue reports] that
removed several of the more transparently problematic revenue items from the Corporate
Unallocated schedule, and buried the revenue for these items elsewhere in the report. . . . After
This document is authorized for use only by William Schmidt in 2016.
For the exclusive use of W. Schmidt, 2016.
Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
the third quarter of 2001, Stephanie Scott became concerned about how Andersen would react
to the size of Corporate Unallocated revenue. . . . In the version prepared for Andersen, the
Corporate Unallocated revenue items could no longer be identified by name and amount. . . .
These items were removed from the Corporate Unallocated schedule and subsumed within a
sales region’s total revenue number.y
Andersen rated WorldCom’s compliance with requests for information as “fair,” never informing
the audit committee about any restrictions on its access to information or personnel.
The Board of Directors
Between 1999 and 2002, nonexecutive members made up more than 50% of WorldCom’s Board of
Directors. The board members, most of whom were former owners, officers, or directors of
companies acquired by WorldCom, included experts in law, finance, and the telecommunications
industry (see Exhibit 4). Bert Roberts, Jr., former CEO of MCI, was chairman from 1998 until 2002.
His actual role, however, was honorary. CEO Ebbers presided over board meetings and determined
their agendas.
The board’s primary interaction with WorldCom matters occurred at regularly scheduled
meetings that took place about four to six times a year. With the occasional exception of Bobbitt
(Audit) and Kellett (Compensation), none of the outside directors had regular communications with
Ebbers, Sullivan, or any other WorldCom employee outside of board or committee meetings. Prior to
April 2002, the outside directors never met by themselves.
A week prior to board meetings directors received a packet of information that contained an
agenda, financial information from the previous quarter, draft minutes of the previous meeting,
investor relations information such as analyst call summaries, and resolutions to consider at the
upcoming meeting. The meetings consisted of a series of short presentations from the chairman of the
compensation and stock option committee about officer loans and senior level compensation; the
chairman of the audit committee;21 the general counsel, who discussed legal and regulatory issues;
CFO Sullivan, who discussed financial issues at a high level of generality for 30 minutes to an hour;
and, on occasion, COO Ron Beaumont. This format did not change, even when the board considered
large multibillion-dollar deals.22
Sullivan manipulated the information related to capital expenditures and line costs presented to
the board. His presentation of total capital spending for the quarter included a breakdown on
spending for local, data/long haul, Internet, and international operations and major projects. The
board, which was expecting cuts in capital expenditures, received information that reflected a steady
decrease. However, the spending cuts were far greater than they were led to believe. The hundreds of
millions of dollars of capitalized line costs inflated the capital expenditures reported to the board (see
Table A).
21 A nominating committee, responsible for filling vacancies on the board, met only when vacancies occurred.
22 Committees met separately in hour-long sessions. Special executive sessions discussed mergers and acquisitions.
This document is authorized for use only by William Schmidt in 2016.
For the exclusive use of W. Schmidt, 2016.
Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
Table A
Report of Capital Expenditures to Board vs. Actual Capital Expenditures (in millions)
As reported to board
Actual spend, not shown to board
Beresford, Katzenbach, and Rogers, Jr., p. 282.
Prior to the meetings, board members received line-cost information from a one-page statement of
operations within a 15- to 35-page financial section. On this page, line costs were listed among
roughly 10 other line items. In his hour-long PowerPoint presentations, Sullivan had a single slide
that made quarterly comparisons of several budget items, including line costs. The investigative
committee concluded:
The Board and the Audit Committee were given information that was both false and
plausible z [emphasis added]. . . . [Audit Committee] members do not appear to have been
sufficiently familiar and involved with the Company’s internal financial workings, with
weaknesses in the Company’s internal control structure, or with its culture. . . . To gain the
knowledge necessary to function effectively . . . would have required a very substantial
amount of energy, expertise by at least some of its members, and time—certainly more than
the three to five hours a year the Audit Committee met.aa
Ebbers, in addition to his full-time job as WorldCom CEO, for which he was generously
compensated,23 had acquired and was managing several unrelated businesses, including hotels, real
estate ventures, a Canadian cattle ranch, timberlands, a rice farm, a luxury-yacht-building company,
an operating marina, a lumber mill, a country club, a trucking company, and a minor league hockey Ebbers financed the acquisitions of many of these businesses by commercial bank loans
secured by his personal WorldCom stock. When WorldCom stock began to decline in 2000, Ebbers
received margin calls from his bankers. In September 2000, the compensation committee began, at
Ebbers’s request, to approve loans and guarantees from WorldCom so that Ebbers would not have to
sell his stock to meet the margin calls. The full board learned about the loans to Ebbers in November
2000, since the loans needed to be disclosed in the company’s third-quarter 10-Q report. The board
ratified and approved the compensation committee’s actions. WorldCom did not receive any
collateral from Ebbers or his business interests to secure these loans. Nor did the compensation
committee oversee Ebbers’s use of the funds, some of which were used to pay his companies’
operating expenses. By April 29, 2002, the loans and guarantees to Ebbers exceeded $400 million.
According to the investigative committee, WorldCom’s board was “distant and detached from the
workings of the Company.”cc It did not establish processes to encourage employees to contact outside
directors about any concerns they might have about accounting entries or operational matters.dd
The Board played far too small a role in the life, direction and culture of the company. The
Audit Committee did not engage to the extent necessary to understand and address the
financial issues presented by this large and extremely complex business: its members were not
in a position to exercise critical judgment on accounting and reporting issues, or on the nontraditional audit strategy of their outside auditor. The Compensation Committee dispensed
extraordinarily generous rewards without adequate attention to the incentives they created,
23 Ebbers was ranked, for several years in a row, as among the highest paid CEOs in the United States.
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For the exclusive use of W. Schmidt, 2016.
Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
and presided over enormous loans to Ebbers that we believe were antithetical to shareholder
interests and unjustifiable on any
On April 26, 2002, the nonexecutive directors met by themselves, for the first time, to discuss
Ebbers’s delay in providing collateral for his loans from the company. The directors, dissatisfied with
Ebbers’s lack of strategic vision and his diminished reputation on Wall Street, voted unanimously to
ask Ebbers for his resignation. Within three days, the board signed a separation agreement with
Ebbers that included a restructuring of his loans into a five-year note and a promise of a $1.5 million
annual payment for life.ff, 24
The Endgame
Cooper’s internal audit team, by the beginning of June 2002, had discovered $3 billion in
questionable expenses, including $500 million in undocumented computer expenses. On June 11,
Cooper met with Sullivan, who asked her to delay the capital expenditure audit until after the third
quarter. Cooper refused. On June 17, Cooper and Glyn Smith, a manager on her team, went to
Vinson’s office and asked her to explain several questionable capital expense accounting entries that
Internal Audit had found. Vinson admitted that she had made many of the entries but did not have
any support for them. Cooper immediately went to Yates’s office, several feet away, and asked him
for an explanation. Yates denied knowledge of the entries and referred Cooper to Myers, who
acknowledged the entries and admitted that no accounting standards existed to support them. Myers
allegedly said the entries should not have been made, but that once it had started, it was hard to
On June 20, Cooper and her internal audit team met in Washington, D.C. with the audit
committee and disclosed their findings of inappropriate capitalized expenses. When Sullivan could
not provide an adequate explanation of these transactions, the board told Sullivan and Myers to
resign immediately or they would be fired. Myers resigned. Sullivan did not and was promptly fired.
On June 25, 2002, WorldCom announced that its profits had been inflated by $3.8 billion over the
previous five quarters. Nasdaq immediately halted trading of WorldCom’s stock. Standard & Poor’s
lowered its long-term corporate credit rating on WorldCom bonds from B+ to CCC-.
On June 26, the SEC initiated a civil suit of fraud against WorldCom. Attorneys in the U.S. Justice
Department launched criminal investigations into the actions of Bernie Ebbers, Scott Sullivan, David
Myers, Buford Yates, Betty Vinson, and Troy Normand.
24 Subsequently, the corporate monitor and WorldCom’s new management cancelled the $1.5 million annual payment and
took control of some of Ebbers’s personal business assets.
25 Pulliman and Solomon.
This document is authorized for use only by William Schmidt in 2016.
For the exclusive use of W. Schmidt, 2016.
Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
Arthur Andersen was never held to account for its WorldCom audits. On June 13, 2002, after a sixweek trial and 10 days of deliberations, jurors convicted Arthur Andersen for obstructing justice for
its destruction of Enron documents while on notice of a federal investigation. After the verdict, the
Securities and Exchange Commission announced that the accounting firm would cease practicing
before the commission by August 31, 2002.
On August 28, 2002, David Myers pleaded guilty to three felony charges: securities fraud,
conspiracy to commit fraud, and making false filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In October 2002, Yates, Vinson, and Normand each pleaded guilty to one count of securities fraud
and one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud, charges that carried a maximum sentence of
15 years in prison. Vinson was released on a bond secured by $25,000 of equity in her home. She was
now working as an accountant for a large Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.26 On March 2, 2004,
Sullivan pleaded guilty to federal fraud and conspiracy charges that he deceived the public, the SEC,
securities analysts, and others about WorldCom’s true financial condition. He admitted: “I took these
actions, knowing they were wrong, in a misguided effort to preserve the company to allow it to
withstand what I believed were temporary financial difficulties. . . . I deeply regret my actions and
sincerely apologize for the harm they have caused.”27 Sullivan agreed to use the proceeds from the
sale of his Florida home, on the market for $13 million, for restitution to WorldCom investors and to
cooperate with the government in its case against Ebbers.
Also on March 2, 2004, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Bernie Ebbers, who was then teaching
Sunday school in Jackson, Mississippi. Ebbers asserted his innocence to the government’s fraud and
conspiracy charges. On March 15, 2005, after a six week trial, during which Ebbers argued that he
was a salesman not a numbers man, the jury found him guilty of fraud, conspiracy, and filing false
documents with regulators. He was subsequently sentenced to 25 years in prison.
On August 5, 2005 Betty Vinson was sentenced to 5 months in prison, and 5 months of home
detention, terms that she has now completed serving. David Myers and Buford Yates received jail
sentences of a year and a day. Troy Norman did not receive a prison sentence because of his attempts
to leave the company rather than commit accounting fraud. Scott Sullivan was sentenced to five years
in prison. His sentence had been set at 80% less time than Ebbers because of his cooperation with the
Cynthia Cooper remained as WorldCom’s senior Internal Audit executive until July 2004. She was
not promoted at WorldCom (subsequently MCI), and no senior company executive ever personally
thanked her. Several employees resented Cooper, believing that her revelation of accounting
irregularities had led to WorldCom’s bankruptcy. In December 2002, Time magazine named her as
one of its “Persons of the Year.” In 2004, the AICPA Hall of Fame inducted her as its first woman
member. In 2004, Cooper left WorldCom to become a consultant and speaker on ethical and moral
Bernie Ebbers entered prison on September 27, 2006. He must serve at least 85% of his term.
26 Susan Pulliman, “Over the Line,” The Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2003.
27 Larry Neumeister, “Former WorldCom chief Ebbers charged, CFO Sullivan agrees to plea deal,” Associated Press,
March 2, 2004,
agrees_to_plea_deal/, accessed March 26, 2004.
28 Source: , accessed September 14, 2007.
This document is authorized for use only by William Schmidt in 2016.
For the exclusive use of W. Schmidt, 2016.
Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
Exhibit 1 A Sample of WorldCom Mergers and Acquisitions, 1991–2001, with Acquisition Price for
the Major Transactions
! Mid-American Communications Corporation
! AmeriCall
! FirstPhone
! Advanced Telecommunications Corporation—Acquired for stock value of $850 million.
! World Communications, Inc.
! Dial-Net, Inc.
! TRT Communications, Inc.
! Metromedia Communications Corporation and Resurgens Communications Group, Inc.—
Acquired for $1.25 billion in stock and cash.
! IDB Communications Group
! Williams Telecommunications Group, Inc. ((WilTel)—Acquired for $2.5 billion.
! MFS Communications Company, Inc.—Acquired for $12.4 billion.
! TCL Telecom
! BLT Technologies, Inc.
! NLnet
! Brooks Fiber Properties, Inc.—Acquired for $2.0 billion.
! CompuServe Corporation and ANS Communications, Inc.— The WorldCom merger
with CompuServe was valued at approximately $1.4 billion.
! MCI—Acquired for $40.0 billion.
! ActiveNet
! CAI Wireless Systems, Inc.
! SkyTel
! Intermedia Communications, Inc. (thereby gaining control of Digex, a leading provider of
managed Web and application hosting services)—Acquired for approximately $6 billion
($3 billion in equity and $3 billion in debt
dept and preferred stock ).
Sources: WorldCom Web site press releases and Dennis R. Beresford, Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, and C.B. Rogers, Jr., “Report
of Investigators,” Special Investigative Committee of the Board of Directors of WorldCom, Inc., March 31, 2003.
This document is authorized for use only by William Schmidt in 2016.
For the exclusive use of W. Schmidt, 2016.
Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
Exhibit 2
Partial WorldCom Organizational Chart, 2002
WorldCom Group
International Voice
Robert Andereson
Line Cost Budgeting
and Planning
Brian Higgins
Capital Reporting
General Accounting
Internal Audit
Network Financial
Internal Audit
Angela Walter
Legal Entity/Balance Sheet Reporting
Domestic Telco
Domestic Telco
Daniel Renfroe
Sales/Income Statement Accounting
Kevin Brumbaugh
Fixed Assets Reporting
Adapted from Beresford, Katzenbach, and Rogers, “Report of Investigation,“ 2003.
This document is authorized for use only by William Schmidt in 2016.
For the exclusive use of W. Schmidt, 2016.
Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
Exhibit 3
Selected WorldCom False Statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission
Actual Income
(Loss) before Taxes
and Minority
($ millions)
Line-Cost Expenses
($ millions)
Line-Cost Expenses
($ millions)
Reported Income
before Taxes and
Minority Interests
($ millions)
10-Q, 1st Qtr 2001
10-Q, 2nd Qtr 2001
10-Q, 3rd Qtr 2001
Form Filed with the SEC
10-Q, 3rd Qtr 2000
10-K, 2000
10-K, 2001
10-Q, 1st Qtr 2002
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York 02 CV 8083 (JSR), COMPLAINT (Securities Fraud)
Securities and Exchange Commission, Plaintiff, v. BETTY L. VINSON, and TROY M. NORMAND, defendants,, accessed April 17, 2004.
This document is authorized for use only by William Schmidt in 2016.
For the exclusive use of W. Schmidt, 2016.
Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
Exhibit 4
WorldCom Board of Directors, as of 2001
Clifford L. Alexander Jr., 67, joined the board after the merger with MCI in 1998. He was previously
a member of the MCI Board.
James C. Allen, 54, became a director in 1998 through the acquisition of Brooks Fiber Properties
where he served as the vice chairman and CEO since 1983.
Judith Areen, 56, joined the board after the merger with MCI in 1998. She had previously been a
member of the MCI Board. Areen was appointed executive vice president for Law Center Affairs
and dean of the Law Center at Georgetown University in 1989.
Carl J. Aycock, 52, was an initial investor in LDDS and a director since 1983. He served as secretary
of WorldCom from 1987 until 1995.
Ronald R. Beaumont, 52, was COO of WorldCom beginning in 2000 and had previously served both
as the president and CEO of WorldCom’s operations and technology unit and as the president of
WorldCom Network Services, a subsidiary of WorldCom, Inc. Prior to 1996, Beaumont was
president and CEO of a subsidiary of MFS Communications.
Max E. Bobbitt, 56, became a director in 1992 and served as chairman of the Audit Committee. He
was president and CEO of Metromedia China Corporation from 1996 to 1997 and president and
CEO of Asian American Telecommunications Corporation, which was acquired by Metromedia
China Corporation in 1997.
Bernard J. Ebbers, 59, was the CEO of WorldCom since 1985 and a board member since 1983.
Francesco Galesi, 70, became a director in 1992. He was the chairman and CEO of the Galesi Group
of companies, involved in telecommunications and oil and gas exploration and production.
Stiles A. Kellett Jr., 57, became a director in 1981 and served as chairman of the compensation and
stock option committee.
Gordon S. Macklin, 72, became a director in 1998 after having served as chairman of White River
Corporation, an information services company. He sat on several other boards and had formerly
been chairman of Hambrecht and Quist Group and the president of the National Association of
Securities Dealers, Inc.
Bert C. Roberts Jr., 58, was the CEO of MCI from 1991 to 1996 and served as chairman of the MCI
Board beginning in 1992. He stayed on in this capacity after the WorldCom merger with MCI
in 1998.
John W. Sidgmore, 50, was the vice chairman of the board and a director at WorldCom beginning in
1996. From 1996 until the MCI merger, he served as COO of WorldCom. He had previously been
president and COO of MFS Communications Company, Inc. and an officer of UUNET
Technologies, Inc.
Scott D. Sullivan, 39, became a director in 1996 after he was named CFO, treasurer, and secretary
in 1994.
“Annual Report for the Fiscal Year Ended December 31, 2000,” WorldCom, Inc., March 31, 2001.
This document is authorized for use only by William Schmidt in 2016.
For the exclusive use of W. Schmidt, 2016.
Accounting Fraud at WorldCom
Dennis R. Beresford, Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, and C.B. Rogers, Jr., “Report of Investigation,” Special
Investigative Committee of the Board of Directors of WorldCom, Inc., March 31, 2003, p. 49.
b Ibid.
Ibid., p. 277.
Ibid., p. 19.
Ibid., p. 18.
Ibid., p. 124.
Ibid., p. 13.
Ibid., p. 94.
Ibid., pp. 94–95.
Ibid., p. 83.
Ibid., p. 71.
Ibid., p. 16.
Ibid., p. 94.
Ibid., p. 99.
Ibid., pp. 105–108.
Ibid., p. 123.
Ibid., p. 225.
Ibid., p. 228.
Ibid., p. 242.
Ibid., p. 233.
Ibid., p. 235.
Ibid., p. 236.
Ibid., p. 240.
Ibid., p. 251.
Ibid., p. 252.
Ibid., p. 277.
Ibid., p. 286.
Ibid., pp. 294–295.
Ibid., p. 283.
Ibid., p. 290.
Ibid., p. 264.
Ibid., pp. 309–310.
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