The Man Who Will Prosecute the Bernard Madoff Case

  • Share
  • Read Later
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Disgraced financier Bernie Madoff is escorted by police as he departs Federal Court in New York City on Jan. 5

Early last year, Marc Litt, an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan, was presented six binders of documents — hundreds of pages each — pertaining to a high-profile investigation. Lawyers wanted to know if Litt would be willing to bring what looked to be a juicy case and they wanted to meet the next day.

"A lot of people might have just winged it," says Anthony Barkow, who was an assistant U.S. attorney working with Litt at the time. "But by the next day Marc had an encyclopedic knowledge of the case. And although there was a colorable reason to go take the case, he exercised restraint and decided we should not. It was the right decision." (See pictures of the global financial crisis.)

Litt, who in mid-December took on the even juicier task of prosecuting Bernard Madoff, is deliberate, with an extreme attention to detail. He has a cool head, but friends love pointing to his dry sense of humor. For example, he once told a dentist he was examining in court that he was looking forward to finally having a dentist in his chair. In a recent court brief he quoted Shakespeare. "The irony of the [defense's] casting of his argument in terms of the Lady Macbeth line, 'Out, damned spot! Out I say!,' Litt wrote, "is [an irony] not lost on the Government." (Lady Macbeth was talking of a murder-related bloodstain as if it were just a food stain.)

He will need all those attributes in the next few months. In taking on the task of prosecuting the largest swindle in history, he has accepted a role that brings with it enormous public scrutiny, which could be uncomfortable for a guy that is said to be low key. "He is the opposite of a press hound," says Glenn Colton, a partner at law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, who has worked with Litt.

Litt won't have to seek out publicity anytime soon. The prosecution has already taken heat publicly for not initially asking for Madoff to be put behind bars, instead of agreeing to bail.

Despite the missing billions and plenty of how-could-this-have-happened awe in the media, the actual prosecution case against Madoff may be pretty straightforward. He has already admitted guilt to a federal agent. What's more, Madoff is reportedly trying to negotiate a plea agreement that could conclude the fraud case against him without a trial. But that's just the beginning of Litt's work. Madoff took as much as $50 billion from investors around the world, working with dozens of feeder funds and other middlemen to lure money into his scheme. Litt will have to decide who among these people is at fault as well. And he will have to do so in an environment in which many powerful and formerly wealthy people are angry. Madoff says he acted alone, complicating matters.

What's more, Litt faced a setback this week when the judge refused to revoke Madoff's bail, after Litt revealed Madoff had sent more than a million dollars worth of jewelry to relatives in December. Some observers speculate prosecutors were using the threat of immediate jail time to pressure Madoff to give details on others who may have been involved in the fraud. On Wednesday afternoon, Litt returns to court again to argue that Madoff needs to be put behind bars.

"The real difficulty is that the fraud was so large and there is a highly motivated group of people who want to see this case adjudicated," says Barkow, who is now the executive director the NYU School of Law's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law. "Madoff is easy. The ring of people around Madoff is a much tougher case."

Litt, 46, is in fighting trim. In November he won a hard-fought case against former technology investor (and longtime opera fan) Alberto Vilar, who was convicted of stealing his investors' money. The trial took nine weeks, which is long for a fraud case. "He is very much a no-nonsense prosecutor who does the right thing without excess flash or showmanship," says Colton, who represented Gary Tanaka, Vilar's partner, who was also found guilty in the case.

Litt holds undergraduate and MBA degrees from Harvard. He spent three years as a legislative aide to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and then got a law degree at Columbia. He was a judicial clerk before becoming an associate at the law firm, Paul Weiss. He joined the U.S Attorney's office in D.C. in 1998. In that office, he handled a bunch of prostitution cases, many of which went to trial. "He is kind of a nerdy guy, so watching him question all of these prostitutes and John Does in court was kind of funny," says a former D.C. colleague. He transferred to New York in 2002.

Litt lives with his wife and two teenage children in suburban Westchester County, and friends say despite his workload he finds plenty of time to spend at home. His wife, Elizabeth Marek, is a clinical psychologist and has written two books including the novel Beyond the Waves. He likes do-it-yourself projects and spent many weekends turning a deck off his house into a sunroom. He is also close with his pet rabbit, Whiskers, whom Litt has trained to hop into a cage at the snap of Litt's fingers. "Whiskers is an incredibly obedient rabbit," says a friend.

Earlier this week, Litt decided to delay bringing the Madoff indictment in front of a grand jury. Observers say he will use his additional time to investigate who else may have been involved in the crime. Those who know Litt say he will dig deep into the evidence to determine who else was complicit in the fraud.

"For Litt, the victims of these sorts of frauds are real people with real families and real retirement savings that don't exist anymore," says Ivan Fisher, a defense attorney in the Vilar case. "For some prosecutors these are just litigations. That's not the case with Litt."

Find out 10 things to do with your money.

Read "Four Steps to Ending the Foreclosure Crisis".