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It’s More Than Madoff

I scoffed when Bernie Madoff,through his  lawyers, asked for a twelve year sentence in his fraud case. What some people think they can get away with pales only in comparison to what some people are actually allowed to get away with — especially when the opportunity to hold them accountable and prevent further damage from being done is consistently passed up.

With a name almost Dickensian in its suitability, Madoff is symbolic of so much and so many that bear responsibility for our economic crisis. It’s easy and tempting to accept him as a substitute for the rest, not only because of his dishonesty and his willingness to lay waste s many lives for his own personal gain, because he apparently thought he could — and should — essentially get away with it. But, as with Madoff, we have an opportunity to hold the rest of them accountable, too.

Well, he got 150 years.

Bernie Madoff Pleads Guilty To $50 Billion Scheme To De-Fraud Investors

Bernard Madoff has been given the maximum prison sentence of 150 years for masterminding a massive fraud that robbed investors of $65bn (£40bn).

The sentence, which means Madoff will spend the rest of his life in jail, was greeted with cheers and applause in the packed courtroom.

US District Judge Denny Chin said he wanted to send a message that Madoff’s crimes were "extraordinarily evil".

Madoff’s lawyer had sought a more lenient sentence of 12 years.

Judge Chin gave Madoff the maximum sentence on all 11 charges, which included securities fraud and money laundering.

"Here the message must be sent that Mr Madoff’s crimes were extraordinarily evil and that this kind of manipulation of the system is not just a bloodless crime that takes place on paper, but one instead that takes a staggering toll," Judge Chin said.

So, was justice served?

I think you’d have to ask his victims. At the sentencing, Judge Chin had on hand statements from 113 victims — which served as Exhibit A in Madoff’s trial. You can read them yourself.

Madoff Victim Impact Statements


They serve as a reminder that many of Madoff’s victims are, Lawrence Velvel wrote on behalf of 300 members of the MadoffSurvivors Google group, "not the billionaires, ‘centamillionaires’, hedge funds, and banks that celebrity-driven media focus on," but are instead "little people."

They are the people who started with little or nothing, as members of the working class or lower middle class, as immigrants, as children of holocaust survivors. They are people who worked like dogs all of their lives, finally saved up enough money to invest in Madoff, and now find themselves wiped out. Many — perhaps even most — are elderly, in their late 60s, 70s or 80s. Many had no other savings or income except what they had in or received from Madoff. Many are completely devastated, financially and psychologically. They are selling their homes in order to have money to live. (There is, as you may know, one man in his 90s who is reported to have taken a job in a supermarket, passing our fliers, we believe, in order to sustain himself.) They are victims of a terrible crime and a terrible tragedy.

They are people like that 90-year-old man, Ian Thierman.


Handing out fliers hawking avocados and pork ribs at a supermarket in Ben Lomond, California, Thiermann is one of many facing dramatic lifestyle changes after losing their savings in Madoff’s suspected $50 billion Ponzi scheme.

Thiermann wasn’t even aware he had invested with Madoff until December 15, when a friend who managed his investments called him on the telephone. "He said, ‘I’ve lost everything and you have lost everything.’" For Thiermann, that meant $750,000.

…Thiermann, owner of a pest-control company in Los Angeles and consultant at companies like Termite Survey before retiring 25 years ago, enjoyed returns of 10 to 12 percent each year on his savings for about 15 years regardless of whether markets rose or fell. He lived on those returns, devoting much time to nonprofit work.

They are people like 89-year-old Paul Allen, who indicted many others along with Madoff in his statement.

[A]t the age of 89, I find myself and my wife (86) devoid of future hope. I find it hard to believe what he did to us and in addition to all the charities affected by this Bastard.

In addition to Madoff’s actions, our own government has failed us completely. The failure of the SEC to act when they had all the information necessary to stop Madoff in his tracks. NOW the SIPC and Mr. Picard is performing in a manner trying to deny us our rights they were supposed to protect. I asked SIPC to provide me with information I know they have and was told they were not obligated to do this, that it was the investor who had to furnish the details to justify his claims.

As I said above, I don’t foresee any help from the SIPC.

Allen isn’t alone. Even after Madoff was sentenced, handcuffed, and whisked out of the courtroom, 20 or so of his victims protested outside the courthouse, waving signs indicating the focus of their anger is shifting from Madoff to the SEC and other agencies that seem to have abandoned it’s responsibilities while Madoff’s ponzi scheme was going full tilt, and abandoned his victims once the scheme came crashing down.

MADOFF After hailing Bernard Madoff’s 150-year prison sentence, some of his former investment clients turned their attention to the government systems charged with stopping financial scam artists and reimbursing its victims.

Rallying outside a Manhattan federal courthouse Monday, about 20 ex-clients who together lost millions to Madoff said they have been victimized by inadequate oversight before the fraud collapsed in December and questionable decisions and slowness in the ensuing repayment process.

Several carried signs specifically criticizing the Securities and Exchange Commission, the agency that failed to discover Madoff’s scheme; the Securities Investor Protection Corp., the government-created insurance system that pays up to $500,000 to each client of failed brokerages; and Irving Picard, the court-appointed trustee seeking Madoff’s assets on behalf of ex-investors.

They have good reason. We’ve known for a while that the SEC was warned about Madoff as early as 2004. Was the commission unable to stop Madoff, or unwilling? Perhaps a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

An investigator at the Securities and Exchange Commission warned superiors as far back as 2004 about irregularities at Bernard L. Madoff’s financial management firm, but she was told to focus on an unrelated matter, according to agency documents and sources familiar with the investigation.

Genevievette Walker-Lightfoot, a lawyer in the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations, sent e-mails to a supervisor, saying information provided by Madoff during her review didn’t add up and suggesting a set of questions to ask his firm, documents show. Several of these questions directly challenged Madoff activities that much later turned out to be elements of his massive fraud.

But with the agency under pressure to look for wrongdoing in the mutual fund industry, she wasn’t able to continue pursuing Madoff, according to documents and two people familiar with the investigation, and her team soon concluded its work on the probe.

Walker-Lightfoot’s supervisors on the case were Mark Donohue, then a branch chief in her department, and his boss, Eric Swanson, an assistant director of the department, said two people familiar with the investigation. Swanson later married Madoff’s niece, and their relationship is now under review by the agency’s inspector general, who is examining the SEC’s handling of the Madoff case.

But the SEC, and the culture of Wall Street itself were important parts of how Madoff did it. He not only pioneered pioneered "payment for order flow" (something I’m not sure I understand well enough to describe here), but as Nasdaq chairman in 1990 Madoff heavily influenced the regulatory commission’s panel charged with studying the controversial practice, and that ultimately gave its approval to the practice.

The outcome "made" Madoff, elevating him to the status of an ultimate player — one who also wrote the rules of the game he played. And for a while, that meant he couldn’t lose, because he was in a position to influence enforcement of the rules too.

Christopher Cox Speaks At SEC Meeting In 1992, for example, Madoff’s name surfaced in a major SEC investigation involving one of his feeder funds. Avellino & Bienes was accused of running an unregistered securities operation, issuing $441 million of notes that promised returns of 13.5% to 20%. SEC officials feared it was a Ponzi scheme. They raced into court, won an injunction to shut the firm down — and discovered that all the investors’ money was safely in the hands of one Bernard L. Madoff. According to court records, Madoff was able to return all the money to Avellino & Bienes in a matter of eight days. (The two men ultimately paid a combined $350,000 in civil penalties to the SEC.)

Once the money was produced, essentially, the SEC exhaled. It didn’t occur to the agency to investigate Madoff. Much of the rest of the case was handed over to a court-appointed trustee whose job was to make sure investors were made whole, and to what was then Price Waterhouse, which tried to reconstruct the mostly nonexistent books of Avellino & Bienes.

…In May 2001 a more probing spotlight was shone on Madoff, and once again he escaped. In that month, two articles — the first in a trade publication called Mar/Hedge, the second in Barron’s — raised serious questions about Madoff’s investment operation. For starters, its very existence was surprising: According to Mar/Hedge, its $6 billion to $7 billion in assets under management made it the largest or second-largest hedge fund in the world at the time. Yet it was unknown. The articles went on to note the improbability of Madoff’s smooth and steady 15% annual returns. They wondered why Madoff charged no fees to run his seemingly successful investment operation and instead accepted only minimal trading commissions.

…So what happened when two publications, one of them among the most prominent on the subject of investing in the country, raised questions about Madoff? Nothing. What seemed like clear warnings disappeared into a void of indifference. Even inside Madoff’s firm, the reaction was a shrug. "We knew about the Barron’s article," recalls the trader. "We went on about our business as if it was another firm that had nothing to do with us."

The Forbes article quoted above, by James Bandler and Nicholas Varchaver, goes into far more detail — including Madoff’s family history in finance, and yet another SEC investigation Madoff managed to lie his way out of. That adds up to at least four times the SEC could have stopped him and failed. The agency’s new director, in a Senate Banking Subcommittee hearing called the "epic fail" on Madoff a "wake-up call." But the alarm rang for 17 years, while the agency continuously hit the snooze button.

The agency has, in Madoff’s wake, ramped up training of staff to spot frauds. And yet it seems like trying to close the barn door as the dust clears from the whole herd stampeding out, because it’s more than just Madoff. There are many more than Madoff, and not just the 10 who were indicted alongside him, or Joseph S. Forte  — who just pleaded guilty to operating an $80 million ponzi scheme. It’s more than the the dozens of ponzi schemes forced into the open by the recession since Madoff’s December 2008, or the nearly 500 open fraud cases being investigated by the FBI (up from 300 in 2006).

It’s more than Allen Stanford, and his $8 billion fraud. It’s people like the regulators who helped him do it.

Years before his banking empire was shut down in a massive fraud case, Allen Stanford swept into Florida with a bold plan: entice Latin Americans to pour millions into his ventures — in secrecy.

From a bayfront office in Miami in 1998, he planned to sell investments to customers and send their money to Antigua.

But to pull it off, he needed unprecedented help from an unlikely ally: The state of Florida would have to grant him the right to move vast amounts of money offshore — without reporting a penny to regulators.

He got it.

Over objections by the state’s chief banking lawyer — including concerns that Stanford was laundering money — regulators granted sweeping powers never given to a private company.

As Robert Scheer pointed out, Bernie Madoff is being conveniently treated as a lone "rotten apple," when in fact he is not only symbolic of the system that let him get away with it, but a prime player, with a seat at the table in making the rules of the game he played.

How convenient for the judge and the media to paint Bernard Madoff as Mr. Evil, a uniquely venal blight on an otherwise responsible financial industry in which money is handled honestly and with transparency.

Madoff, sentenced Monday to 150 years in prison for bilking investors of billions, should be exhibit A in why the dark world of totally unregulated private money managers and hedge funds should be opened to the light of systematic government supervision. Instead, he is being treated as an aberrant menace, with the danger removed once the devil incarnate, as his victims describe him, is locked up and the key thrown away.

For goodness’ sake this was not some sort of weird outsider who flipped out, but rather a key developer of the modern system of electronic trading and a founder and chairman of Nasdaq. Madoff often was called upon to help write the rules on financial regulation, and therefore became quite expert at subverting them.

Painting Madoff as "Public Enemy #1," and applauding his sentence as a kind of final justice, masks the reality that Madoff is but one player in what was essentially a ponzi economy, of which the majority of us are victims. Unlike Madoff’s victims —  who at least had the pleasure of seeing him taken away in handcuffs, and at least have a shot of recovering some fraction of the $65 billion he stole from them — we aren’t likely to see much of the $2.5 trillion we’ve essentially lost (so far), the perpetrators have gotten away with it.

Madoff, it turned out, was no Public Enemy No. 1 to rival John Dillinger, the Great Depression thug at the center of Hollywood’s timely release this holiday weekend, “Public Enemies.” In the context of our own Great Recession, Madoff’s old-fashioned Ponzi scheme was merely a one-off next to the esoteric (and often legal) heists by banks and bankers. They gamed the entire system, then took the money and ran before the bubble burst, sticking the rest of us with that fear, panic and loss.

The estimated $65 billion involved in Madoff’s flimflam is dwarfed by the more than $2.5 trillion paid so far by American taxpayers to bail out those masters of Wall Street’s universe. A.I.G. alone has already left us on the hook for $180 billion. It’s hard for those who didn’t have money with Madoff to get worked up about him when so many of the era’s real culprits have slipped away scot-free. Already some of those same players are up to similarly greedy shenanigans again now that the coast seems to be clear.

Washington had no choice but to ride to their rescue last fall to prevent even greater systemic catastrophe. But that rescue is tainted. As the economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote in this month’s Vanity Fair, “In the developing world, people look at Washington and see a system of government that allowed Wall Street to write self-serving rules which put at risk the entire global economy — and then, when the day of reckoning came, turned to Wall Street to manage the recovery. They see continued re-distributions of wealth to the top of the pyramid, transparently at the expense of ordinary citizens.”

In the stories of Madoff’s victims, we can understand — if we listen — how the "Masters of the Universe" knowingly and willingly became "destroyers of worlds," as the individual worlds of their victims, hollowed out by the Madoffs of the world, quietly imploded.

It is just as convenient to see or portray Madoff’s victims as either (a) wealthy individuals whose losses don’t generate much sympathy in an increasingly painful economic downturn, and (b) everyday people who played the market and "should have known better," and thus don’t get much more sympathy than the wealthy victims.

But just as Madoff is representative of Wall Street’s "Masters of the Universe," so too are his victims representative of many Americans who are bearing the brunt of this crisis — like the auto mechanic, retired forest worker and retired school secretary who were among the nine victims who spoke at Madoff’s sentencing. They are like the majority of Americans who are financially illiterate and unaware of it — unable to estimate how their own credit card interest would compound over time, or how long it will take them to pay it off. They are like the rest of us who don’t understand the world of finance or investing, despite the 401(k) turning us all into investors in the market.

And they are people like Ronnie Sue Ambrosino, who thought they did the right thing by "working and saving" and thought they were finally in a position to reap the benefits, only to find out that after a lifetime of "working and saving" they had nothing left. Ambrosino’s words to judge Chin could apply to many more — like those who failed to probe Madoff’s criminal actions, and those who will soon probe the actions of those responsible for the financial crisis that threatens to turn many more of us into victims of many more Madoff’s before it’s all over.

I will ask you to look at the big picture of what happened. I wonder if you ever questioned why Mr. Madoff turned himself in when no one was chasing him? Did he think his manipulative ways would, once again, prevail and that he’d get a lesser sentence for the unthinkable crimes he committed? Did he think, as he sat in his penthouse for 3 months while his victims lost their homes, and worse yet, their lives, that he would get away with it? Did Bernard Madoff feel had so much power that he could influence his attorneys, the prosecutors and the American justice system to someday be a free man? I hope not.

Madoff’s victims, though many of them may feel that some degree of justice was meted out to him, may never recover even most of their losses, let alone all. Many of them will never be made whole. But they at least got a moment of justice, in that the man who took so much from them — essentially, stole the rest of their lives, and wasn’t man enough to even look at them when he delivered his plea — had to hear their stories, and finally face them.

But it takes more than one man to crash an entire economy. It takes many more Bernie Madoffs, who create many more victims in the process, as willingly and knowingly as Madoff did. Some of them we can name. Some, for now, have the security of anonymity.

Whether the rest will have to answer for their own actions — and be held accountable for the consequences visited upon countless others — remains to be seen.

That will depend upon who is ultimately named to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, and whether it’s members have the will and the courage to call those responsible to account. It will depend on whether they have the will to use their subpoena power to bring those responsible before the committee, the ability to ask the right questions, and the courage to demand answers.

It’s fine that Bernie Madoff will be going to prison for his crimes. But it’s more than Madoff. Much more.

2 Comments

  1. who wrote this?

  2. Great post. Thanx for all of the links. I will follow up on them.

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