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Analysis of Bernard Madoff finds big, paying audience

NEW YORK

Amid the financial wreckage of the Bernard Madoff scandal, a cottage industry of talking heads, expert panels and Internet traffic is thriving.

On Thursday alone, cheated investors and others transfixed by what's become known as the largest Ponzi scheme in history could choose between separate Madoff breakfast forums in Manhattan or dial up a teleconference about the "myths and realities" of the case.

One of the breakfasts, billed as "Madoff and the Meltdown," was hosted by Conde Nast's Portfolio magazine at the venerable 21 Club and featured Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel, whose charitable foundation was among several Jewish institutions to lose money to Madoff. Down on Park Avenue, a panel of accountants mulled over the scam's tax implications.

There also have been daylong conferences for anxious investors and their attorneys. There's a Web search engine — Madoffsearch.com — devoted to all documents Madoff. There's even a promotional bobble-head doll in his honor.

At the 21 Club forum Thursday, a well-heeled crowd that included former CBS anchorman Dan Rather, publisher Tina Brown and socialite Georgette Mosbacher was served a post-meltdown meal of scrambled eggs and bacon as they listened to Wiesel lament losing $15.2 million in foundation funds meant for the needy. He recalled the ironies of his first meeting with Madoff — "a crook, a thief, a scoundrel" — at a dinner several years ago.

"We didn't speak about the markets," he said. "We spoke about history, Jewish philosophy, ethics — yes, ethics."

Madoff "presented himself as a philanthropist," he added. "He gave money to other institutions. Nobody knew it was our money."

"Psychopath — it's too nice a word for him," Wiesel said in his first public comments on Madoff since the scandal.

Another panelist, former Securities and Exchange Commission chief Harvey Pitt, predicted more arrests, saying, "I think it takes a village to commit a fraud."

All the fuss began in December, when the FBI arrested Madoff after they say he confessed to his sons that he swindled his clients, including celebrities, socialites and charities, of $50 billion — a staggering total Pitt said he suspects is inflated. The 70-year-old former Nasdaq chairman remains confined to his luxury Manhattan apartment under house arrest.

In the weeks since the arrest, Manhattan attorney Anthony Paccione has been on the Madoff commentator circuit, discussing the disgraced financier on Web casts and at meetings of lawyers and auditors.

He said he has found that Madoff audiences are endlessly intrigued by "the disparity between the earlier perception of him as one of the best and the brightest, and the ultimate reality that he's possibly one of the biggest thieves ever."

The case, he added, also provides a compelling lesson on "the two linchpins of what's wrong with the economy: greed on Wall Street and lax regulation in Washington, D.C."

Paccione was among several legal experts featured last week at the "Madoff Litigation Conference" at the Harvard Club in midtown Manhattan. An audience made up largely of lawyers representing jilted investors paid $495 apiece to hear speakers try to explain the mind-boggling complexities of the paper trail being followed by investigators suspicious of Madoff's claim that he acted alone, and by a court-appointed trustee determined to retrieve assets and pay claims.

"You have funds of funds, invested in funds of funds that invested in feeder funds that invested in Madoff," attorney Timothy Mungovan of Nixon Peabody, a Boston firm representing dozens of individual and institutional Madoff investors, said during one session.

Tom Hagy, president of HB Litigation Conferences, said that the Madoff case was "ripe for a conference," and that the turnout of about 100 was strong compared to past forums on asbestos, construction-defect and insurance-related cases.

"We look for hot topics like this," Hagy said. "A lot of people have questions, and the answers could mean millions and millions of dollars."

Analysis of Bernard Madoff finds big, paying audience 03/01/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 1, 2009 3:30am]
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