I've often been kidded by acquaintances who couldn't fathom how I brought a set of shaky investigative skills to the Fourth Estate and somehow remained in that arena for two decades.

One wag told me that if I was at the Watergate Hotel in June of 1972, I would probably have asked one of the burglars if he needed a hand with the door. Another pictured me  waving to the mysterious figure leaning out the window of the Texas School Book Depository.

But when it comes to problems with paying bills, I suddenly become very perceptive.

The first inkling I had about some unconventional practices at my then-long distance carrier WorldCom was when I got double-billed several months in a row.

Conversations with the company's, ahem, customer service representatives resulted only in an exercise in frustration. Not that at the time I was aware that someone in Bangalore -- as opposed to WorldCom's headquarters in Clinton, Miss. -- was probably fielding my call, but even when confronted with evidence of cleared checks, they threatened to turn the matter over to a credit bureau.

Now when someone threatens to whittle away a pretty fair credit history I spent years compiling, my Italian temperament eases toward the surface and it resembles a scene from "The Hulk," sans the torn pants and shirt and, of course, the lime-green pallor.

Therefore, you can imagine my complete lack of surprise when the company soon became embroiled in a massive accounting scandal, the  eventual scope of which made it the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history at $11 billion.

And at the center of it all was former chief executive Bernard Ebbers, the 63-year-old former self-proclaimed "telecommunications cowboy" who just last week was convicted on nine counts of conspiracy, fraud and filing false documents with  regulators, all of which translate into what amounts to a life sentence.

Ebbers, much like his customer-service reps, disavowed any knowledge of wrongdoing, despite the company's financials being cooked more frequently than a training class at the Culinary institute of America.

I also had to question the legal wisdom of having Ebbers testify at his trial, as he tried to portray himself as just a couple of notches above Simple Simon in matters of sophisticated accounting, and therefore unaware of what was going on.

So let me get this straight:  The man who built WorldCom via series of acquisitions into a company whose stock was once valued at $100 billion, was ignorant of an 18-month-long period of fraudulent accounting?

According to Ebbers, it was, in fact, his former CFO, Scott Sullivan, who was the true engineer of the debacle.

But 12 people in a New York courtroom shared the same skepticism as I did and saw to it via a guilty verdict that the only communication Bernie will have for the next 25 years or so will be his telephone privileges when he calls his wife.

I wonder if he'll get double-billed?

If so, I hope he calls me to complain.

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