There's a new number in the Great Madoff Rip-Off saga, and it's $850 million. That's the estimated amount of liquid assets left from Bernard Madoff's private sandbox of billions, according to Stephan Harbeck, president of the Securities Investors Protection Corp., speaking at Monday's House Financial Services Committee hearing on the $50-billion Madoff scandal.
Madoff was supposed to come clean with his list of assets last week it certainly should add up to more than $850 million but so far there has been nary a public peep of the list. When, during the hearing, Representative Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, asked David Kotz, the Securities and Exchange Commission's inspector general, what Madoff's assets were, Kotz answered meekly, "We don't have that information." Ackerman finally badgered Kotz to agree to supply the total asset list publicly within a week. We'll see. (See the top 10 scandals of 2008.)
Or maybe we won't. To anyone familiar with the world of numbered accounts, it's hard to believe that the Pirate of Third Avenue will fess up entirely to SEC investigators digging for the remaining $49.15 billion in vanished loot. Maybe the money total is as inflated and false as his victims' accounts; maybe large chunks were taken out by depositors. Either way, outside experts say it stretches credulity to think a clever sociopath and long-term bandit would not take special, even basic steps to protect his extended family from the ugly shame of poverty, particularly since this alleged bandit knew he was headed for the brig.
Sure, experts say, he'll cough up the obvious brokerage accounts, client names, and offshore and numbered accounts that dealt directly with his investment company, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC. And he'll begrudgingly concede the $7 million Park Avenue pad, the Palm Beach digs, the yachts, the French villa and the Montauk getaway. But no one believes he'll tell authorities where all the booty is stashed not a chance, unless it saves him from walking the plank. It's the equivalent of the British government asking the infamous pirate Captain Kidd if he wouldn't mind handing over some of his treasure maps, pretty please.
"Do you think a man who deceived so many friends, associates, charities, and lied to them openly for so long, has a problem being a little bit deceitful in surrendering his books and records?" asks a former Los Angelesbased Treasury Department special agent who for decades specialized in white-collar fraud. "Of course he's hidden money; we're talking $50 or $100 million. It's a pittance to a guy like Madoff. Hiding money is a game for criminal minds, and there is no way Madoff's ever going to provide 100% of the information unless it exonerates him."
The modern way of burying a treasure chest of cash, banking experts say, is to have your own bank that is funded by nameless wire transfers to Switzerland, the Caymans, Liechtenstein. It's still unclear as to whether Madoff had his own bank, but there is always the ever popular method of hidden safes and multiple, anonymously managed safety-deposit boxes loaded with cash, or even better, "bearer bonds," an old-fashioned but effective tool that is as good as cash and can be presented to banks by anyone bearing them no questions asked. Today they are used frequently in Central America. Typically, bearer bonds pop up years later in the hands of family members, after the institutional memory of the crime has faded. The beauty of bearer bonds is that they can be made out for any amount and there's no record of purchase.
Over the course of 20 years, a person like Madoff could have stashed away a lot of bearer bonds, for a lot of money, in a lot of places. But what about the money trail? Couldn't transaction records lead investigators to these caches? "You'll likely see an amazing loss of memory and material in the months ahead," says the Treasury Department expert. "Computers will be lost, fires will be started, records and books destroyed. It always happens."
A guilty conscience, billions to play with and oodles of time is the perfect recipe for massive deception, according to Christopher Reich, best-selling author of financial thrillers such as Number Account and the recent Rules of Deception. "Madoff had decades to prepare for this day, and it's likely he's hidden considerable assets," says Reich. "Numbered accounts in Swiss banks are no good today; the Swiss cooperate too much." Instead, a white-collar fraudster like Madoff could create multiple phony investment-advisory businesses in foreign countries, similar to legitimate businesses he's actually working with. Says Reich: "All he has to do is create fake invoices over the years and pay in to those fake companies, then create new phony businesses in other countries, have the monies transferred to them, and then close down the original fake businesses. It's how the mob does it; the money trail is wiped clean."
There is no way investigators will ever find all the Madoff money, the author says. Remember, Enron used some 900 foreign accounts to manage its money. "There just isn't enough manpower to go through all the legal hurdles to track it down," Reich says. The money is there, hidden away, he says, maybe $40 to $80 million, and you can bet some family member is in on it too.
Of course, plain old-fashioned "gifting" on a massive scale over the years from Madoff to his children could also keep his unjailed clan in the lush life for a long while.
Perhaps investigators can take note from Captain Kidd, who in the late 1600s and not far from Madoff's Montauk estate roamed northern Long Island and Gardiners and Block islands, burying his stolen treasure. Maybe SEC investigators and Madoff's many thousands of victims should bring shovels and start digging, fast.
Robert Chew is a former investor with Madoff via a feeder fund. He lives in Colorado.