The 'Pope of Ponzi'

Madoff's 'black box' secrecy fooled investigators.

Bernard Madoff 248 88  (photo credit: AP)
Bernard Madoff 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
For Bernie Madoff, mum was the word. The Pope of Ponzi demanded anonymity as a cost of doing business, according to The Madoff Affair, an illuminating one-hour special airing Tuesday on PBS at 9 p.m. New York time. Sandra Manzke, a hedge-fund manager whose former company Tremont Group Holdings Inc. invested billions of dollars with Madoff, said she promised not to use his name in her prospectus because "that was his trading model, the black box that he used." That black box doubled as a black hole, into which disappeared an estimated $65 billion, along with the reputation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, whose bumbling gets a full airing. Correspondent Martin Smith traces the story back to the 1960s, when Madoff opened an investment advisory firm fronted by two accountants, including Michael Bienes, who sings like a canary. It's not a pretty tune. "What made you think he could return 20 percent?" Smith asks. "I don't know," Bienes responds. "How does an airplane fly? I don't ask." Sounding like a chump out of central casting, he also moans that Madoff "owned us. We were always captive to him." Unlicensed securities Bienes isn't the only fool in this story. The SEC comes across as supernaturally clueless. Madoff's firm eventually attracted more than 3,000 clients and in the early 1990s was investigated for selling unlicensed securities. As Smith points out in an interview with former SEC chairman Harvey Pitt, this was hardly a minor infraction on Madoff's part: Anyone with more than 15 clients was supposed to be registered. "He had 3,200," Smith points out. "Thirty-two hundred seems to me more than 15," Pitt concedes. Get the man a cookie. Yet Madoff was simply required to close down and pay investors $400 million - a minor inconvenience, since by that time his market-making business "was handling 9 percent of all the trades on the New York Stock Exchange," the show says. The SEC never paid serious attention to Madoff. Not so investors. With the help of Walter Noel Jr. and his Fairfield Greenwich Group, Madoff went global, attracting A-listers such as Prince Michael of Yugoslavia; Philippe Junot, former husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco; and French aristocrat Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet . Batting average Not everyone was fooled. Boston risk analyst Frank Casey became suspicious after de la Villehuchet told him Madoff made money in both bear and bull markets. Colleague Harry Marcopoulos analyzed Madoff's returns, Casey says, and determined "a baseball player would have to be hitting .925 for 10 years in a row" to rival his success. Marcopoulos sent the SEC several memos warning something was amiss, to no effect. Pitt admits "it is not clear why the SEC was unable to conclude that he was conducting the Ponzi scheme we now know he was conducting." Congressman Gary Ackerman, a Democrat who represents parts of Long Island and Queens, New York, accused the SEC of gross incompetence during a February 4, 2009, meeting with agency officials. In the show's most memorable clip, Ackerman roars that Marcopoulos "led you to this pile of dung that is... Bernie Madoff and stuck your nose in it, and you couldn't figure it out?" Madoff sentencing So who really bagged Madoff, who confessed last December that his business was "one big lie"? Former investor Burt Ross says: "The only reason that this ended was because, at one given point in time, the economy did so badly that people wanted - needed - to get money out of Madoff's investments." That demand outstripped Madoff's money supply and the game was up. Madoff, who pleaded guilty to all charges against him in March, faces a prison sentence of as many as 150 years when he is sentenced on June 16. De la Villehuchet, who may have lost $1.4 billion in clients funds he invested with Madoff, won't be there to see it. He committed suicide in December. In a postscript that may bring a smile to Madoff's now familiar face, Noel and two of his Fairfield colleagues were set to receive multimillion-dollar bonuses last year. According to the show, "they have not confirmed whether they went through." As with Bernie, mum's the word.