Madoff to be sentenced, but his victims' pain knows no solace

Madoff's fraud, maybe the biggest in Wall Street history, wiped out thousands of people around the globe.

madoff faces media 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
madoff faces media 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Bernard Madoff will get one final creature comfort before he is sentenced Monday, probably to serve out the rest of his life in prison. The judge has given him permission to wear his own clothes for the hearing, rather than a jail uniform. Jack Cutter is wearing something special, too, these days: a butcher's smock. The 80-year-old from Longmont, Colorado, had to go back to work after he lost his retirement savings in Madoff's massive swindle. He used to be a petroleum engineer. Now he spends his weekdays toiling in the meat department at a Safeway supermarket. The job pays $8.64 per hour. "It's a tough job," he said. "Eight hours on my feet." But with money tight, he has no choice but to stick it out in the only job he could find. "My slide-rule skills were pretty much outmoded," he said. Madoff's fraud, maybe the biggest in Wall Street history, wiped out thousands of people around the globe. Not all of them were Palm Beach millionaires. A sizable roster of public-school teachers, farmers, mechanics and other middle-class people are also among the victims. Many had been enjoying a comfortable retirement until Madoff's arrest in December. Now, nest eggs gone, they are struggling to pay the bills. Help is not on the way anytime soon. Prosecutors, who have asked a federal judge in Manhattan to sentence Madoff to 150 years, have promised to seize his assets and force him to pay restitution. On Friday, a judge ruled Madoff must forfeit $171 billion in assets, and his wife Ruth was stripped of more than $80 million in net worth she claimed was hers. Yet, six months after his arrest, prosecutors still do not know exactly how much money he took or what victims might hope to eventually recover. With their financial futures bleak, many of the con-man's victims are in no position to take pleasure in his moment of reckoning. "It's real easy to be very, very angry at Mr. Madoff. He's a complete scam artist," said Cutter. "But my immediate concern is, how long can I continue doing this?" He has cut household living expenses to a bare minimum, is thinking about selling his house and rides the bus to work, but recently had to cut his weekly hours at the supermarket from 40 to 32 because of the physical toll. Even in prison, Madoff will likely be spared that type of hard labor. The swindler's fate has been nearly a foregone conclusion since his confession in December. At the time, investors thought they had $64b. stashed away in their Madoff accounts. In reality, there was less than $1b. Madoff was supposed to have invested the money in stocks. Instead, he ran a classic Ponzi scheme, using new deposits to pay bogus returns. A few longtime Madoff clients appear to have reaped huge benefits from his scheme. The court-appointed trustee unraveling Madoff's books filed a lawsuit against investment entrepreneur Jeffry Picower, demanding that he return $5.1b. he withdrew from his Madoff accounts over the years. Hedge-fund managers and other marketers who steered client dollars to Madoff also reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in fees based on bogus profits, and the trustee has sought the return of that cash, too. Whatever money is recovered will eventually be pooled and divided up among the victims. Some people who invested directly with Madoff will also qualify for up to $500,000 in payments from the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, an industry-funded group. But those efforts might do little for those who need help most: the thousands of small-timers who entrusted their tax-deferred retirement accounts to money managers, who then placed the money with Madoff, often without their clients' knowledge. Those so-called "indirect" investors do not qualify for the $500,000 SIPC payment because of a legal technicality. That leaves people like Karen Audet, a retired elementary school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, wondering what to do next. She rolled $225,000 from her retirement plan into a fund run by a well-regarded member of her church, who in turn invested it with Madoff. Now, it's all gone. If she had known Madoff personally and invested with him directly, she might be able to get every dime of her investment back through SIPC. Instead, she may get almost nothing. For now, she said, the only solution is for her husband to put off retirement and keep working, even after recent sextuple bypass surgery. "We really did need that money very much," she said. "I am in constant anguish." Letters and e-mails from other victims in similar circumstances have poured into the courthouse over the past few months. A single mother wrote about trying to save money by turning down the heat in the house and keeping the lights off. Victim after victim said they were being forced to sell their homes. A Connecticut doctor said his practice's entire retirement plan had been wiped out, leaving 140 employees in the lurch. Some victims have pushed for legislation that would change the rules for SIPC and allow the organization to make payments to people whose money was lost through so-called feeder funds. Their proposals have not picked up momentum, though, in part because of a public perception that most Madoff victims were, and remain, quite wealthy. "People like us, we are invisible," said Suzanne Webel, a farmer near Boulder, Colorado, who lost her savings in the scandal. "We feel we are all victims of the same crime, and we should be entitled to the same relief." As for Madoff's sentencing Monday, she joined other victims in saying she would view the proceedings from afar with a mix of disgust and disinterest. Webel has, she explained, more pressing concerns, like whether she will lose the family farm. "I'd like to think that justice will prevail... but he's irrelevant at this point," she said. "I'm just trying to get justice for the rest of us, who are innocent."