Cleaning up the Madoff mess

By Alex Brummer, December 22, 2010

When Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150-years imprisonment two years ago, the Nobel prize-winning campaigner and writer Elie Wiesel suggested an appropriate punishment for the financier was that he were locked in his cell with a video screen playing a continuous loop of his victims.

Madoff may have escaped the fate proposed by Wiesel - whose Foundation for Humanity was among the losers when Madoff confessed to the biggest fraud in business history - but the impact of his crimes on his family and victims are still being felt. His family have become social and commercial pariahs and one of his sons, Mark Madoff, recently committed suicide. Mark Madoff's father is so reviled that he could not even risk attending his son's funeral.

The Madoff affair has come back into public view, partly because of the suicide and partly because of the determination of lawyer Irving Picard, the trustee for the liquidation of Madoff's investment firm, who is working tirelessly to recover funds for the victims of Madoff's crimes. Under Madoff's Ponzi scheme, investors around the world were fooled into believing that the regular stream of handsome returns was the result of shrewd investment. The reality was that capital placed with his investment funds by new savers was used to pay-off existing investors cashing in their money.

Having carefully reviewed Madoff's business dealings, Picard decided that Madoff's money may have vanished but he was not, as he claimed when first arrested, a single determined fraudster working on his own.

He could never have gathered the large sums he allegedly lost - some $50bn (£32bn) - without the help of so called 'feeder funds' operated by other financial players. Picard's office recently spewed out a series of writs to Madoff family enterprises and major financial groups in an effort to recover funds for investors. The writ served on Madoff Securities International, the London arm of his empire in which Mark Madoff, his brother Andrew and uncle Peter Madoff were directors, looks to have been the event which triggered the suicide.

It was alleged that the London offshoot was part of an elaborate deception and the family had funnelled some £380m through the enterprise. The suit seeks to recover £50m of this. The three family members have denied any wrongdoing. However, it is known that 'light touch' regulation in London made it easier to conduct potentially illicit dealings through the London offices.

Madoff Securities had not been singled out. Picard also landed a stack of writs with some of the most illustrious names in global finance. Swiss bank UBS was hit with a $2bn (£1.3bn) law suit. JP Morgan Chase received a suit demanding $6.4bn (£4bn). And Britain's HSBC, which has a large private banking arm, received a $9bn (£5.7bn) suit. The UK bank has already made some reparations to investment funds badly damaged by their investment in Madoff securities.

The biggest suit of all was reserved for Medici Bank of Austria, owned by Sonja Kohn. It alleges that Kohn was Madoff's "criminal soul mate" and is seeking $20bn (£12.8bn). Kohn denies any wrongdoing.

As time has passed, the plot has thickened. Among those now facing intense scrutiny is J Ezra Merkin, a famous New York art collector who once headed the finance group GMAC and is allegedly responsible for placing $2bn (£1.3bn) of charitable funds with Madoff. The New York Attorney General has charged that the money was placed with Madoff without the trustees of the funds being properly informed. Merkin disputes the charges.

The Madoff fraud is by far the biggest ever uncovered on either side of the Atlantic.

The real wickedness in the Madoff affair has been the impact on charitable funds, which has crippled many Jewish causes in the US. Picard is doing his best to right this wrong, although the chances of recovering anything like the lost $50bn (£32bn) are remote.

The only saving grace is that the affair has not halted America's devotion to philanthropy. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently joined other business billionaires such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates in committing to donating most of his riches to charity. Giving, it seems, is as fashionable as ever despite the Madoff trauma.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 11:39am, December 22 2010