The audacity of Bernie Madoff’s fraud could perhaps have been glimpsed in how Madoff held himself in the years before his Ponzi scheme collapsed in 2008.
His entire life was an act of deception
Madoff dressed well and moved in moneyed circles. His manner was private, but he lived in the rich man’s world of Palm Beach and New York’s Hamptons. Madoff owned a yacht. His investment firm maintained expensive, modern premises in a tower, the Lipstick Building, in Manhattan, and kept offices abroad. He held a series of seats on the boards of major companies and was at one time non-executive chairman of the NASDAQ stock market.
He was respectable. Madoff carried himself like a patrician, rich and superior. He was capable of great cordiality and used it to great effect greasing wheels. Madoff dabbled in philanthropy which was designed to look unshowy while leaving an impression of positivity in the minds of those who saw it.
But all of this was built on fraud and lies. His entire life was an act of deception. It was a great confidence trick, built on the assured appearances of wealth and success, with Madoff playing a role — part financial genius, part dull money man. This fraud would have strained a man who saw his clients as people worthy of fair treatment and respect. But there was little of that to be gleaned from Madoff’s sometimes smiling — but often expressionless — face.
At the time of his exposure, Madoff had run an investment firm whose returns had not been legitimate for over thirty years. He had defrauded thousands of investors of up to $64 billion, a good proportion of which were fictitious profits he claimed to have earnt, but which in fact never existed.
Instead of investing in anything, Madoff had simply spent his clients’ money and used new money from fresh clients to cover the withdrawals of the old. If this weighed on his conscience, he didn’t show it. He was an archetypal grey man among a sea of them — a known quantity in New York’s financial world.
Madoff courted the well-to-do and the sophisticated investor. He relied upon his victims to recommend his services to their friends, impressed by his unerringly consistent returns. He took the money they offered to him without fuss, accepting their gratitude, assuring them by his apparent exclusivity that it was he who was doing them a favour.
In interviews held after he was imprisoned, Madoff refused to say that he was sorry. He maintained that his investors knew what they were doing; and his few defenders were keen to say that some of them still made money from the scheme.
Like Harry Markopolos — the whistleblower who tried for almost a decade to tip off the Securities and Exchange Commission that something was not right at Madoff Investment Securities — Madoff himself blamed the regulators. They were too stupid to catch him, he said to interviewers. They didn’t really know his business.
Madoff ruined many lives and likely prematurely ended a few
Stupid they might have been but, when Madoff was under investigation, he went to great lengths to lie to the authorities. When an investigator asked to see the sort of documents a legitimate firm would have to hand, Madoff’s people stalled for time while upstairs, a fake document was first drawn up, then printed, and then chilled in a fridge and crumpled a little to give it the phony appearance of age and use.
Madoff’s scheme deprived thousands of people of their life savings. It denied many of them the opportunity to retire. Madoff ruined many lives and likely prematurely ended a few — including the life of his son Mark, who committed suicide in 2010 on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest.
In prison, Madoff was unrepentant. When journalists interviewed him in jail, he preferred to talk up the conditions of his imprisonment than dwell on those he had defrauded. The doors to his cell “are not locked at night”, he told a true crime podcast. “I have a pretty big picture window.”
Because people gave him money of their own volition, and no one caught him for so long, Madoff perhaps thought he deserved the money more than them. It is certainly how he acted. His victims should have known what they were getting into, he said. They deserved everything they got, he may have thought.
This ignores the great distance Madoff and his associates travelled into deceit. They lied and dissembled to protect their fraud; they fought the investigations of the authorities until, amid the financial crash, Madoff knew the game was lost. He handed himself in not out of charity — not to give the authorities a sporting chance — but because he could no longer conceal the depth of his fraud.
Madoff lived his final decade in prison without apology or second thought. Everyone who interviewed him from jail seemed sure he had no regrets. Madoff had wanted to be a success in a culture which cherishes both the trappings of gentility and the hustle. That desire, and contempt for the people he could defraud, brought him great wealth at the expense of others and, finally, death in a prison infirmary.
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