In Clinton, Miss., the headquarters of WorldCom rises out of the moonscape of Waffle Houses and Pizza Huts like a dark steel mother ship. It is rather shocking to turn the corner and see it there, lurking behind the freeway as if it had been teleported into this tiny town. In 1999 WorldCom founder Bernie Ebbers moved the company here, to his old college town, and everything changed. Employees started wearing their badges around town as a sign of their achievement. A Wal-Mart Supercenter sprang up. And millions of Ebbers' dollars went to making over Mississippi College. When friends came to visit Cynthia Cooper for lunch, she would give them a tour of the facility. This is the town where she had grown up, and she was proud of this company that knew no bounds. Cooper too had ridden the wave, becoming vice president of internal audit of what was, for a time, the 25th biggest company in the country.
Last June, Cooper told the audit committee of WorldCom's board that the company had been playing dirty with its accounting practices. She knew as she said it what would happen. Within days, the company fired its famed chief financial officer, Scott Sullivan, and told the world that it had inflated its profits by $3.8 billion--the largest accounting fraud in history. The number has since grown to $9 billion, and counting. Her colleagues have been placed in handcuffs and led past TV cameras. Shareholders have lost some $3 billion since the news broke, and soon at least 17,000 WorldCom employees will have lost their jobs. In December, the company put a FOR SALE sign on the hangar that stored its corporate jets in Mississippi.
Cooper, meanwhile, still drives to the desolate Clinton headquarters every day. She had spent her career trying to get the higher-ups to take her internal-auditing division seriously; it is only now, in bankruptcy, that WorldCom is finally doing so. Cooper, 38, a petite blond, has been given more money and twice as many staff members. Her division is probably the most secure at the company. And it is quite obvious that she is heartbroken. "There have been times," says Cooper, a woman not given to intense displays of emotion, "that I could not stop crying."
Cooper went home to Clinton in 1991, leaving a career and a failed marriage in Atlanta. She had a 2-year-old daughter and needed a job fast. So she just picked up the phone and started calling CFOs. She got a job at WorldCom--then named LDDS--as a contract employee making $12 an hour. After a brief stint at SkyTel, a paging company that would later be acquired by WorldCom, she returned to LDDS in 1994 to start the internal-audit department. The company was precocious and growing fast, and founder Ebbers and his team had little interest in the kind of financial nitpicking her division represented. But Cooper prepared to win them over. "These guys were entrepreneurs. There was a need to prove ourselves and the value of internal auditing," she remembers. "I loved it. It was a very exciting place to be. We were moving and shaking and acquiring companies."