“What’s a Ponzi scheme?” That is the question Bernie Madoff’s wife, Ruth, asked when he came clean about his years of ripping people off in a Ponzi scheme. She didn’t know or didn’t want to know. She got to live the lavish lifestyle of New York City elite. Sometimes you don’t want to know how to sausage is being made. Even if it means all your money and wealth has been obtained very illegally.
I first heard of the phrase in 2006 after working half a year at the Wagoner Tribune when two friends (one of them the son of a pastor and president of the local school board) on a much smaller scale did a Ponzi scheme bilking people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Or maybe it was a million. The exact number may not be known. There were 121 charges of obtaining money by false pretenses – confidence game. I think 70 were felonies based on how much money was taken and the rest was misdemeanors because I remember someone had given $5 but still felt he had been screwed over. Others gave thousands to “invest.” Well, they didn’t invest. They splurged.
I was 28 at the time and they were barely old enough to buy beer at Wal-Mart legally. Yet, they were supposed to be running a huge investment business. Well, that put them on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s radar. It’s so easy because they had gone to people who had known them since they were babies and probably changed their diapers. And they robbed people of their savings. So, it’s no wonder some people might have not pressed charges because they were embarrassed and ashamed they got ripped off.
Ponzi schemes are best descibed in the Netflix docuseries Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street as a taking from Peter to pay Paul deal. Someone gives you $100 but you don’t ivest it. You turn around and give $50 to someone else. Or maybe they get $25. You have to have more people giving you money so you can give more to the other people and still take some for yourself. Eventually you can’t pay people their money which you can’t do when you don’t have it.
Madoff orchestrated what is considered the world’s largest Ponzi scheme at $64.8 billion and was at one time the chair of the NASDAQ stock exchange. He founded and was the chair of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities where he operated the scheme, pulling in both the wealthy elite and regular people who were just trying to have some money to live off of in their latter days. So, when someone has a high standing you’re going to trust them more than someone hanging on a street corner. But as one interviewee who was screwed over by Madoff says, “If God hands you a resume, check the references.”
Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger made the Paradise Lost movies, which documented the arrest, trial, conviction and years of appeal and final release of the West Memphis Three, that raised more questions than answers. The people of West Memphis, Ark. seemed to be more interested in covering up one of the worst crimes imaginable and blaming it on people they didn’t like than going after the real killer(s) as the finger has been pointed to family members. In 1992, he released Brother’s Keeper made along with Bruce Sinofsky about authorities suspecting a very rural uneducated and remote farmer/rancher in upstate New York of mercy killing his brother. The documentary like Paradise Lost exposes how people who are different than the norm are often targets when things go bad.
In many ways, Bernie Madoff was a different person as well. Raised in post-WWII America, he didn’t have a lot of people who thought he would amount to much. His parents weren’t the ideal Ozzie and Harriet types as they struggled to make ends meet. He met Ruth as a teenager and she came from a more prestigous family. He tried to go to law school but dropped out after a year. In many ways, Madoff was doing the wrong thing in a lot of people’s opinion.
That was until he became a penny stock broker-dealer and worked his way up. Because Bernie and his wife were Jewish. they were still subjected to some of the anti-Semitic prejudice in America. Country clubs were still functioning on a white only/anglo-saxon Protestant agenda. As one person says, there were signs that read, “No Jews and no dogs.” I guess you could argue Madoff felt he was getting back at all the people who he felt had wronged him growing up.
But the extent Madoff with others committed this fraud is not only detailed but kinda impressive. They were using Dot Matrix printers as everyone was switching over to laserjet printers in the 1990s. They were manhandling fraudulent documents so they looked more worn. If the paper felt too warm off the printer, they stick it in the refrigerator. Madoff was subleasing two floors in the Lipstick Building in NYC. On one floor, he kept it so prestige and immaculate he made sure all the computer monitors were aligned so they didn’t look out of order. But on the other floor, they would work in outdated environment with people who barely graduated high school working on the documents.
Diana B. Henriques, who wrote the book The Wizard of Lies, which was turned into an HBO movie directed by Barry Levinson with Robert DeNiro as Madoff, is one of many people who are interviewed at length, as well as the authorities who busted Madoff and employees who worked with him. Berlinger also cast actors to do some re-enactments. Henriques doesn’t hide back her disgust for Madoff but like other people spends time telling us there were so many warning signs and red flags. And so many times, it was brought to the attention of people who could have stopped it but chose not to.
Was it because Madoff was only ripping off the regular people? Madoff, himself, who died in prison in 2021, is shown in a jailhouse interview with his prison issued clothes. And he speaks as if he did nothing wrong. And that’s why you really don’t like him. This wasn’t someone who did something out of desperation once or twice and it got out of hand. This is someone who spent decades cheating people out of their money and making it look legit to anyone who would ask just a few questions.
You have to wonder if the banking crisis of the mid to late 2000s didn’t happen as Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers went out of business with the housing market, how much longer would Madoff been able to continue? Madoff’s own sons, Mark and Andrew, turned him into authorities to protect themselves as they should. Mark would later commit suicide by hanging on Dec. 11, 2010 two years to the day after his father was arrested. Andrew died in early September 2014 from cancer.
In a final fuck-you to the people who had been robbed, the U.S. federal courts put an attorney Irving Picard in charge of recovering funds from people who benefitted even if they didn’t know of the scheme. It’s called a clawback and it should make you just cringe because the SEC wasn’t properly enforcing the insurance payment the firms had to pay on crooked investments. So, it didn’t matter if someone was deceased, their estate still owed even if the money is long gone.
Wall Street covers its own. This is the way it does. Banks were bailed out. CEOs still got their bonuses. At the same time, people lost their houses and retirement annuities because they trusted the wrong person. The docuseries which is over four hours ends on a rather sour note as it shows the ashes of Madoff who died in prison in 2021 sitting unclaimed. Sadly Berlinger doesn’t have an upbeat way to end it.
As wealth inequality is at its worst ever, it makes you wonder as one person ponders, they’ll be another person like Madoff willing to offer people a bigger slice of the pie. And people will be lining up to invest.
What do you think? Please comment.