UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

April 24, 2009

GETTING TO KNOW BERNIE MADOFF

James Bandler and Nichola Varchaver, Fortune - It took a special pass to get into the "back office" on 17, where Madoff was conducting his $65 billion Ponzi scheme. And even if a person could get in, there wasn't much to see: an antiquated IBM computer server kept in a locked room, piles of trading statements, and a staff of about 20 paper pushers and clerks.

In retrospect, of course, there were clues, as a Fortune investigation has discovered. The IBM server, for instance, an AS/400 that dated from the 1980s, was so old that some data had to be keyed in by hand, yet Madoff refused to replace it. The machine -- which has been autopsied by the government -- was the nerve center of the fraud. The thousands of pages of statements printed out from it showed trades that were never made.

Then there was the man who ran the floor, Frank DiPascali, Madoff's chief deputy on 17. He was a 33-year veteran of the firm, with a rough Queens accent and a high-school education, but nobody was quite sure what he did or what his title was. "He was like a ninja," says a former trader in the legitimate operation upstairs. "Everyone knew he was a big deal, but he was like a shadow.". . .

Fortune has learned that Frank DiPascali is trying to negotiate a plea deal with federal prosecutors in which, in exchange for a reduced sentence, he would divulge his encyclopedic knowledge of Madoff's scheme. And unlike his boss, DiPascali is willing to name names. . .

The emergence of this potential star witness may well stand assumptions about the case on their heads: Some people widely assumed by the public to have been involved in the fraud may not have been, and a small group of Madoff investors who appeared to be innocent victims may not have been entirely innocent after all. But then, few things about the life of Bernie Madoff turn out to be as they seem. . .

Bernie had his quirks, and to a startling extent they colored the firm -- quite literally when it came to the decor. Virtually every piece of furniture, equipment, or decoration was black or gray. . .

Madoff was even more obsessed, if that's possible, with cleanliness. Even while he was responsible for billions of dollars, it was not uncommon to see him dusting his office or the two-foot sculpture of a screw behind his desk. One staffer recalls getting off the elevator to find Madoff, clad in one of his innumerable tailored suits, on his hands and knees in the lobby, straightening the rugs so that they were aligned perfectly. . .

When Madoff was in the office, all window blinds had to be aligned at the same height, all computer screens had to be arrayed at the same angle and position, and on and on. So insistent was he on perfect alignment that, more than once, he dropped his trousers in the office -- startling female employees -- to ensure that the line of his shirt buttons was precisely vertical. . .

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