Five former aides to Bernard Madoff who spent decades working for his firm were found guilty Monday of helping run the biggest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history, a $17.5 billion fraud exposed by the 2008 financial crisis.
The three men and two women, hired by Madoff with little financial experience, were convicted on all counts. The defendants failed to persuade a federal jury in Manhattan they were ignorant of the fraud despite being part of the inner circle at his New York-based firm.
Hatched in the 1970s, Madoff’s fraud targeted thousands of wealthy investors, Jewish charities, celebrities and retirees. It unraveled in 2008 when the economic crisis led to more withdrawals than Madoff could afford to pay out. In addition to $17.5 billion in principal, it erased about $47 billion in fake profit that customers thought was being held in their accounts.
Monday’s verdict, after five months of testimony and four days of deliberations, is a major victory for the U.S. government, coming in the only criminal trial brought in the five years since the scam was revealed. Madoff refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
Some clients learned they lost their life savings after Madoff’s confession and arrest on Dec. 11, 2008, leading to criticism of regulators who repeatedly overlooked the scam. Madoff, 75, pleaded guilty the next year and is serving 150 years in a North Carolina prison.
Prosecutors began probing Madoff’s highest-ranking employees soon after his arrest. While the con man claimed to have carried out the fraud alone, several of his former workers later pleaded guilty, including his ex-finance chief, Frank DiPascali, who testified at the trial as the government’s key witness.
The defendants were Annette Bongiorno, who ran the investment advisory unit at the center of the fraud; Joann Crupi, who managed large accounts; Daniel Bonventre, the ex- operations chief of Madoff’s broker-dealer; and computer programmers George Perez and Jerome O’Hara, accused of automating the scam as it grew rapidly in the 1990s.
“As the jury unanimously found, these five defendants played crucial roles in constructing and maintaining the house of cards that was the Madoff investment fraud,” said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
The convictions “demonstrate what we have believed from the earliest stages of the investigation: this largest-ever Ponzi scheme could not have been the work of one person,” Bharara said. “The trial established that the Madoff fraud began at least as far back as the early 1970s, decades before it came to light.”
Some of the defendants lowered their heads as the verdict was read. Crupi clasped her hands while Bongiorno wrote on the verdict sheet, nodding as each count was read.
Testimony began in October with industry experts, accountants, tax employees, federal agents and former clerical staff who worked at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC’s offices on three floors of a lipstick-shaped Midtown Manhattan skyscraper. They all gave evidence against the former employees, some of whom worked for Madoff since the 1960s and left extensive paper trails found in storage boxes, filing cabinets and 1980s-era computer systems.
The defendants were accused in a 31-count indictment of conspiring to use millions of fake account statements and false trade confirmations to trick customers into believing they owned shares in the world’s biggest companies. Instead, prosecutors said, the victims’ money was used to enrich the firm’s wealthiest clients, give conspirators exorbitant pay and bonuses and keep the Ponzi scheme afloat.
Madoff’s scam, disguised as an exclusive investment- advisory business, was made popular by its steady returns, even when the economy struggled. The success of Madoff’s broker- dealer business and his extensive ties on Wall Street and in New York politics added to his allure.
The trial made public the greatest detail yet how Madoff was able to dupe the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and other investigators during audits. The defendants banded together during late-night sessions to create hundreds of fake statements showing new trading strategies and create fake reports showing their securities holdings, witnesses said.
The former colleagues got rich off the fraud, benefiting from backdated trades in their personal investment advisory accounts, as well as inflated salaries and bonuses intended to buy their loyalty and silence, prosecutors said. They used the stolen cash to buy mansions, yachts and beach homes and pay for country club memberships and private schools, prosecutors said.
Some of the defendants were also accused of disguising untaxed income as business expenses, using corporate credit cards to pay for tropical cruises, family vacations and expensive wines and meals for years without paying it back to the company.
The jury rejected claims by the five former aides that Madoff duped them into carrying out his fraud by giving them tasks that prevented them from seeing the big picture. Several of the defendants claimed they thought the trading was taking place in London, and that the trades depicted on customer statements were coming out of Madoff’s inventory of securities.