NEW YORK (AP) -- WorldCom Inc., the long-distance titan accused of falsifying its books by $11 billion in the biggest accounting scandal in U.S. history, agreed Monday to pay investors $500 million to settle civil fraud charges.
The fine would be by far the largest the Securities and Exchange Commission has ever imposed.
The settlement was presented to U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, who said he would not rule before June 11. The judge said he needs to learn "much more of the defendant's seemingly massive fraud," who would be affected by the settlement, and what internal controls WorldCom has put in place.
The settlement calls for WorldCom to put $500 million into a fund for investors who were victimized by the company's fraud, though the exact process has yet to be determined. WorldCom's collapse and bankruptcy wiped out nearly $180 billion in shareholder wealth.
Under the settlement, WorldCom neither admits nor denies the charges. The settlement actually calls for a $1.5 billion fine, but the amount would be reduced to $500 million as part of the company's Chapter 11 bankruptcy case.
Even so, such a fine would surpass the $150 million fine the SEC slapped on Citigroup's Salomon Smith Barney as part of an industrywide settlement of allegations that Wall Street firms warped their stock ratings to lure investment-banking business.
And it would dwarf the largest accounting fraud settlements to date: the $10 million fine the SEC levied on Xerox last year and the $7 million paid by now-fallen Arthur Andersen LLC in 2001 over its audit of Waste Management.
WorldCom is accused of falsifying balance sheets to hide expenses and inflate earnings. It has been in negotiations with the SEC for months, trying to reach a deal that would bolster its hopes of emerging from bankruptcy as early as September.
A group of former WorldCom employees critical of the company denounced the accord as a "slap on the wrist." The $500 million is equivalent to "about one week of revenue ... an insignificant amount by any standard," said the group, BoycottMCI.com.
The group's founder, Mitch Marcus, said the accounting scandals that brought down Enron Corp. and Arthur Andersen "pale in comparison" to "the degree of illegality" at WorldCom.
The SEC sued WorldCom last June, just a day after the company disclosed $4 billion in financial misstatements, shocking a market already buffeted by the Enron scandal. WorldCom later raised the estimate to around $7 billion, then $9 billion and eventually $11 billion.
The SEC broadened the scope of its civil case in November to allege that WorldCom misled investors starting at least as early as 1999, much earlier than previously alleged. WorldCom executives agreed to submit to ethics training, and the duties of the company's court-appointed watchdog were expanded.
While the SEC pursued civil charges, the Justice Department has been conducting a criminal investigation and has charged several former executives.
Ex-controller David Myers and former chief financial officer Scott Sullivan were arrested in August. Federal prosecutors say the two directed employees to conceal more than $3.8 billion in expenses in financial reports, causing WorldCom earnings to be overstated by $5 billion.
Myers pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors. Sullivan has denied any wrongdoing. He is free on $10 million bail. Three other WorldCom executives have pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Ousted WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers has not been charged. Last month, he failed to make his first payment of around $25 million on more than $400 million in loans that he owes the company.
WorldCom was among the fastest-growing and most aggressive players in the 1990s telecom and Internet boom. Since then, it has cut its work force to 55,000 from a peak of 80,000. It remains second only to AT&T Corp. in the long-distance market and is a major carrier of data over the Internet.
Earlier this year, WorldCom unveiled a restructuring plan that would change the company name to that of its long-distance unit, MCI, and move its headquarters from Clinton, Miss., to Ashburn, Va. It hired a new CEO and chairman, former Compaq Computer Corp. chief Michael Capellas, in November.