Spotlight turns on Merkin in Madoff scheme

Scandal focuses on financial guru who oversaw investment funds for YU, other Jewish institutions.

Bernard Madoff 248 88  (photo credit: AP)
Bernard Madoff 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
The scandal surrounding disgraced Wall Street giant Bernard Madoff focused Tuesday on financial guru J. Ezra Merkin, who was in charge of investment funds for New York's Yeshiva University and other Jewish institutions. As the alleged Ponzi scheme claimed more victims, sources at the university confirmed that it may have lost up to $140 million through the Madoff scam. Sources told The Commentator, the school's newspaper, that the university had lost "considerable sums of money" in the collapse of a $1.8 billion hedge fund with Madoff through Merkin's Ascot Partners. Merkin, the scion of a philanthropic family known for its support of Modern Orthodox causes, resigned as a YU trustee and as chairman of its investment committee on Friday following Madoff's arrest a day earlier. Madoff was treasurer of Yeshiva University. According to sources close to the case, Merkin was apparently duped by Madoff. Still, many believe that Merkin might have misled his investors, and YU officials were discussing whether to press charges against Merkin, who had placed the money with Madoff without the university board's knowledge. Some veteran members said that at the time Merkin was not only respected and trusted, but also seen as "the Golden Boy controlling the Golden Goose." Merkin has served on the board of many Jewish organizations and institutions, including two day schools, Ramaz and SAR, in the Bronx and Manhattan, and the health care charity Yad Sarah in Israel, often playing a key role in overseeing how they invested their funds. These institutions placed their money in one of Merkin's funds, Ascot Partners. Merkin in turn invested most of Ascot's assets with Madoff. Many who had trusted Merkin expressed shock and anger at the decisions he made which led to their financial losses. The university's losses are said to amount to between $100m. and $140m., or 7% to 10% of the university's $1.4b. endowment, The Commentator reported. No one is accusing Merkin, who did not respond to an interview request, of prior knowledge that Madoff was operating an alleged fraud. Indeed, Merkin informed investors in his $1.8b. Ascot Partners fund last Thursday that he was among those who suffered substantial personal losses when it crashed, since all of its assets were invested with Madoff. But while he has portrayed himself as a victim, Merkin is being criticized as having misled institutional and personal investors, including those wary of Madoff's secretive and suspiciously successful earnings streak. Several people said that while they were reluctant to invest with Madoff, they trusted Merkin completely, not knowing that he in turn was taking their investment in his Ascot Partners and putting it into Madoff's fund. In hindsight, many in the community are now asking how a donor and/or trustee of a nonprofit such as Yeshiva University could be in a position to manage money for the institution, as Merkin did. According to a board member cited by the Yeshiva University newspaper, several trustees and the university's President Richard Joel had "long been upset with Merkin's management of the endowment, citing factors such as disappointing returns as well as a secretive, overbearing leadership style." In particular, YU officials were "troubled by Merkin's tactic of directing substantial amounts of YU's endowment - in the range of $400 m. to $700 m. - to a fund that he himself managed." According to the paper, "numerous professionals in the hedge fund and endowment world felt there was both an ethical and management problem with the setup at Yeshiva. One declared that it was 'not only a major ethical problem' but also felt that it led to a situation where Mr. Merkin became only answerable to himself. 'He eliminated all the checks and balances,' he said, 'that should have secured YU's money.'" One source who sat on boards with Merkin told The New York Jewish Week, "You have to know Ezra to really understand how this could have happened. He is brilliant and incredibly well connected in the Jewish and financial community, with a long and incredible success rate in investments. Plus, he can be at times charming and considerate - as well as intimidating." According to The Jewish Week, several people noted that when questioned or challenged about the wisdom of investing heavily in one fund rather than diversifying, "Ezra would ask, 'Why would you reduce your concentration in your best performing fund?'" Ironically, the weekly reported, the university was in the process of responding to calls for instituting stricter policies regarding conflict of interest when the news of the Madoff fiasco hit. Procedures that had been discussed for more than a year were scheduled to be put in place next year. Some have pointed out that Merkin had benefited numerous individuals and nonprofit organizations for many years and deserved gratitude for boosting their levels of income and success, The Jewish Week noted. But most of those interviewed expressed more anger than appreciation, and wondered how deep and extensive the impact would be on the Jewish philanthropic community. Everyone said they expected a slew of civil lawsuits. The UJA Federation of New York, where Merkin served on the board, was shielded from Ascot's collapse because "a conflict-of-interest policy prevented Mr. Merkin from directing their endowment towards his own funds," the YU paper reported. But others were hard hit, such as the Israeli health-care charity Yad Sarah, which is losing up to $1.5m., its spokesman said Tuesday. According to the organization's latest 990 tax filing, the organization's American fundraising outfit, American Friends of Yad Sarah, had $1.5 m. invested with J. Ezra Merkin's Ascot Partners in 2006. Yad Sarah, which has an annual budget of some $20 m., was still checking into the matter as of Tuesday morning, but believes that the money was used to support a Yad Sarah foundation that supported respiratory care. "In 2006, we started a foundation for respiratory equipment and that was invested with Ezra Merkin," the organization's spokesman David Rothner told JTA. "What happened to the foundation, that I wasn't able to find out." Jewish day schools were also hit hard by the scandal, according to reports in the past two days. The SAR Academy, a Jewish school in the Bronx, had roughly a third of its $3.7m. endowment due to investment in Madoff, while Manhattan's Ramaz School may have lost almost $6m. of its endowment. The Maimonides School in Boston said in a letter to donors it had lost between $3m.-$5m. in investments held by Madoff. In a letter sent to parents and board members, Jeff Swartz, the chair of the school's board of directors, said the school could have lost up to $5m. from a trust left to it by Maurice Saval, who died in 1988. That trust had yielded more than $8m. in total, according to the letter. Much of Saval's money in recent years was invested with Madoff. Swartz estimated that $3m., approximately 60 percent of the Saval Trust, was lost in the Madoff scandal, and perhaps another $2m., he said in the letter. More losses were reported Tuesday as Jewish institutions continued to follow the trail of their investments. According to its 2006 Form 990, the Charles I. and Mary Kaplan Foundation, based in Rockville, Maryland, had more than $29m. of its $30m. in assets invested in a "Madoff brokerage account." The foundation - and two of its officers, Edward and Irene Kaplan - are major donors to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and numerous other Jewish institutions in the Washington area, and the foundation funded the Jewish demographic study of the nation's capital in 2003. Jerusalem Post staff and Bloomberg contributed to this report.