Wall Street: On the Ponzi trail

Bernard Madoff leaves a major mini-mess in his wake.

madoff arrives at court 248 88 ap (photo credit: )
madoff arrives at court 248 88 ap
(photo credit: )
Three months ago, $8 billion might have sounded like a lot of money to steal. But that was before Bernard Madoff, once among the most sought-after money managers in New York, was busted for shafting investors out of almost $63 billion in a 20-year-long pyramid scheme. Now, everything else looks insignificant in comparison, and every scam artist is a "mini-Madoff." So far, the label has been applied to dozens of alleged swindlers, from Allen Stanford, the Texas financier suspected in an $8 billion investment fraud, to Bruce Friedman, a Los Angeles mortgage banker and Jewish philanthropist charged last week with stealing $216 million from elderly would-be real estate speculators. Even mega-developer Donald Trump - the Apprentice star who called Madoff a "sleazebag" on CNN - found himself tarred after developers who borrowed his name to sell luxury condos at the planned "Trump Ocean Resort" in Mexico's Baja California, just south of San Diego, went bankrupt last month, robbing investors of hundreds of thousands of dollars in deposits. "If you'd asked me if there was anything like this before, I would have said no, because Ponzi schemes at that level are exceedingly difficult to pull off," New York plaintiffs' attorney Samuel Rudman told The Jerusalem Post. "Now, I wouldn't be surprised by anything." Madoff himself may only be surprised that he was caught; he was due to plead guilty at a hearing in New York on Thursday to 11 counts of criminal fraud and money laundering, but would not be required to express remorse to his victims or explain the circumstances that prosecutors say prompted him to begin faking trading records and account balances. MADOFF'S OWN downfall bankrupted other "feeder funds" that entrusted all of their money to him - exposing high-profile investors like J. Ezra Merkin, formerly a colleague of Madoff's on the board of Yeshiva University, as little more than middlemen - but it has indirectly helped expose others. One of these is Arthur Nadel, a Florida hedge fund manager who went on the lam in January, after a partner pushed for tighter auditing to satisfy skittish investors. Nadel owed $50 million to investors when he fled; prosecutors who charged him in New York after he turned himself in say he tricked investors out of about $300 million. Federal investigators have fanned out across the US hunting for illicit schemes that might have gone unnoticed when the markets were rising, but which have been left exposed by the receding tide of money, combing through tips and complaints, looking for Cassandras who might have earlier been ignored. Victimized investors, some of whom appeared at Madoff's plea hearing to address the court directly on the subject of whether he should be permitted to remain under house arrest in his $7 million Lexington Avenue penthouse, while people whose money he stole were losing their own houses, have a variety of options for seeking restitution. The US government guarantees investment losses up to $500,000 under a special insurance fund, and any money or assets recovered by bankruptcy liquidators is typically paid back to those who were swindled. But that cushion provides little solace to those who wonder whether their investments will be the next to evaporate in a puff of lies; people are looking askance at even the most trusted investment advisers, wondering whether the next mini-Madoff is hiding in plain sight.