Washington Watch: Madoff's enablers must pay, too

Countless well-off Jews were misled, apparently because no one wanted to look a gift horse in the books

By
December 25, 2008 13:08
3 minute read.
Washington Watch: Madoff's enablers must pay, too

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Part of the Hanukka tradition of gift giving in many Jewish households are the annual contributions to charities. Appeals from countless causes fill our mailbox every year, prompting me to wonder how many families could be clothed and fed just on the money spent for postage. And then there are the phone calls telling me how many lives depend on my writing a check or giving my credit card number today. The only one I haven't heard from so far is Bernie Madoff, but that's probably because I haven't got the minimum $10 million to invest - all my money is currently tied up in bills - and he probably has other things on his conniving mind. But some calls are from charities bemoaning the bad economy and their losses at the hands of Madoff the Goniff. My wife's response was blunt: "If you can't handle the money we already gave you, why should we give you more?" Madoff's alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme may land him in prison, but he shouldn't have to go alone because he didn't run his con game alone. He had help from a lot of enablers who may never even have heard his name until the feds busted him. But that doesn't absolve anyone. J. EZRA Merkin, a prominent Wall Street fund manager, played a leading role in overseeing Yeshiva University's investment portfolio. He had $110 million of YU's endowment invested in Ascot Partners, which he put in Madoff's fund, apparently telling no one at YU, according to the New York Jewish Week. Hadassah was one of many that sent out appeals essentially saying, in effect, "We mishandled your money by giving it to Madoff to handle so now we need you to send us more." The Twin Cities Jewish community has apparently lost hundreds of millions of dollars and seen its donor base decimated. Adding to the pain is the knowledge that they were exploited by fellow Jews in their own community whom they trusted. As in many communities, recovery could take years. Some decry the emphasis on Madoff's religion, but the reality is he particularly preyed on Jewish institutions and wealthy donors in the boardrooms, shuls and country clubs who lusted after his high returns and didn't want to ask many questions about how he managed to get them. The desire for big gain and feelings of communal warmth overcame good judgment, with few asking how Madoff could continue reporting strong profits even as the national economy was tanking. The scandal has sparked anti-Semitic invective in the blogosphere, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Not just the Madoff scandal but the downturn in the national economy is being blamed on those "crooked Wall Street Jews" and "Jew money changers." THE GOOD Ole Jewish Boys network misled countless well-off Jews, apparently because no one wanted to look their gift horse in the books while Madoff was producing returns that really were too good to be true. They are Bernie's enablers and need to be held accountable by their communities; they don't deserve to be let off the hook because they lost their own money along with others'. These are sophisticated players, and if they didn't have the good sense to ask tough questions in the first place, they should have to start answering some tougher ones now. By now every organization, trust fund and federation has its lawyers and accountants on speed dial. The Greater Washington Jewish Federation's endowment fund wrote to Madoff's firm demanding "an immediate redemption of 100 percent" of its money. Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, said, "People sometimes forget to conduct the due diligence when dealing with others with social prominence." Bernie was trusted because he was a "good Jew" who gave generously to Jewish causes, sat on many boards and helped those institutions and fellow board members invest their money. He was playing on the people's greed by bilking the richest of the rich and wound up robbing the neediest of the needy. THANKS TO Bernie and his enablers, already-hard economic times are going to be a lot harder. He appears to have put a giant dent in Jewish philanthropy at a time when federal, state and local governments don't have the money to meet growing needs. Some Jewish organizations already have had to close their doors; others could follow. It will take more than apologies, audits and attorneys to clean up this mess. What the scandal makes clear is the need for accountability and replacing those responsible for lax oversight and judgment with people who will be better stewards of the funds entrusted to them. This will be a bleak Hanukka for many, and a good time to ask how many other Bernie Madoffs there are, and what is being done to find out.

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