For Madoff Victims, Scars Remain 10 Years Later

Dec 23, 2018
Originally published on December 24, 2018 5:49 am

Steve Heimoff remembers coming home from a restaurant December 10, 2008, to find an email from a cousin with the words "Bad news" in the subject line.

The $2 million retirement nest egg he had counted on was suddenly wiped out, as was much of the savings of his relatives, casualties of the multibillion-dollar Bernie Madoff scam that was dominating the headlines.

Long touted as a Wall Street genius who racked up big gains no matter how the economy was doing, Madoff had just been arrested, confessing to federal authorities that his investment firm was a fraud.

Instead of trading stocks with his clients' money, Madoff had for years been operating an enormous Ponzi scheme, paying off old investors with money he got from new ones.

By late 2008, with the economy in free fall, Madoff could no longer attract new money and the scheme collapsed. Hundreds of investors, including numerous charities, were wiped out.

"I just stopped going to restaurants, I stopped buying clothing," Heimoff recalls. "I stopped going on vacations, I stopped going to movies."

Cutting spending, contemplating suicide

Today, a court-appointed trustee has managed to recover about $13 billion, which is most of the money Madoff's investors put into his funds. The trustee did that in part by selling off the Madoff family's personal assets, including their homes in the Hamptons, Manhattan and France and a 55-foot yacht named Bull.

But for investors such as Heimoff, the Madoff scandal has left permanent scars.

To Heimoff, the revelation that he was among the victims was perplexing at first. He had never heard of Madoff. He and his family had invested their money with Stanley Chais, a California fund manager who was known for dazzling returns.

"We were told it was extremely trustworthy," Heimoff remembers. "It was described to us a 'risk-free arbitrage' and that's all we knew."

But as he would soon learn, Chais actually operated several "feeder funds" that invested their money with Madoff, and when Madoff's firm collapsed, so did they.

At 62, Heimoff was suddenly forced to refinance his condominium in Oakland, California, and severely cut back on spending. He contemplated suicide. Although he was able to scrape by on the money he had left, Heimoff worried about the future.

"My challenge was not getting along now ," says Heimoff, a wine writer and critic. "My fear was getting old and decrepit. I don't have kids, and my entire adult life, part of my motive for doing everything was a fear of being old and poor in America. That's not a thing that works out too well in this country."

Putting off retirement for 10 years

The Madoff scandal has left a long trail of wreckage that included suicides, lost homes and bankruptcies.

Madoff himself is serving a 150-year prison sentence at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina. Six people who worked at his firm are now serving time, including his brother, Peter. Madoff's elder son Mark, a longtime broker at his father's firm, hanged himself in his Manhattan apartment in 2010, on the second anniversary of his father's arrest. Like others in the family, he had faced allegations that he knew about the fraud, something he denied.

Others affected by the scandal have done their best to move on.

At 58, Michael De Vita was preparing to retire when he learned that the nest egg he had counted on was gone. So was his elderly mother's. Instead, he was forced to return to work for 10 more years, only retiring last August.

Michael De Vita and his mother Emma De Vita lost much of their retirement savings by investing with Bernie Madoff.
Courtesy of Michael De Vita

De Vita will receive 60 to 70 percent of the money he invested with Madoff from the court-appointed trustee, but that only applies to the principal. He won't be getting any of those fabulous returns that were supposedly building up over the years, which means his retirement income will be less than a third of what he expected.

Nor will he receive much of the federal and state taxes he paid on his illusory Madoff earnings over the years.

In one sense is he fortunate: As their bogus returns built up over the years, many Madoff clients withdrew funds from their accounts, to pay for retirement expenses or college tuitions, for example. If their withdrawals exceeded the money they deposited over the years, they've been slapped with lawsuits attempting to claw back the funds they received. It's been a painful, bitter experience for them.

De Vita was spared that because he never took much money out of his funds.

As the years passed, De Vita has made the best of his plight, turning himself into something of an investor advocate. He wrote a book about his experience and teaches a college course about the scandal. He also has been active in an organization of Madoff victims and has lobbied state and federal officials on their behalf.

The Ponzi scheme lives on

Despite promises by lawmakers to help, efforts to assist Madoff victims have often led nowhere, he says.

"There was a lot of feelings back at that time that people who were invested with Madoff, quote, got what they deserved. That the returns were too good to be true and therefore you took advantage of the system and, you know what, ha ha, we gotcha," De Vita says.

While that may have been true with some of the investors, many more were like him, ordinary people who trusted Madoff with their retirement funds and have paid a terrible price.

In Madoff's aftermath, a few measures have been taken to prevent another scandal, like the establishment of a Securities and Exchange Commission program to protect whistleblowers at financial firms, De Vita notes.

But Ponzi schemes have continued, albeit on a much smaller scale than Madoff's.

"What happened to us shouldn't have happened," he says. "Can it happen again? I am positive that it will happen again."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Ten years ago, this country was reeling from the worst financial crisis in decades, and in the middle of it all came shocking news. Bernie Madoff, a pillar of Wall Street, was arrested for orchestrating a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The news, spread fast and quickly, engendered panic amongst investors who gathered at the offices of their alleged swindler.

GREENE: Hundreds of people were told the money they'd invested with Madoff's firm was probably gone. They included rich and famous people but also those of more modest means. Now, many of those investors have recovered most of the money they lost. But as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, they're still living with the consequences of Madoff's fraud.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: To his investors, Bernie Madoff was a Wall Street genius, a man who racked up big returns year after year, no matter how the economy was doing. But Madoff lived with a terrible secret. And in 2008, with the economy crashing, he was forced to admit that his investments were a fiction. In tapes published by New York Magazine later, Madoff talked about breaking the news to his family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE MADOFF: Everybody was just like stunned. You know, I was crying. And I said, look; you know, I just - you know, I don't know what else to tell you.

ZARROLI: As news of Madoff's Ponzi scheme broke, thousands of investors, including many charities, learned they didn't have the money they thought they had. They included Steve Heimoff, a writer and critic whose retirement fund was wiped out.

STEVE HEIMOFF: I had an email from a cousin of mine, and I read through the body of her email, and she explained that it was all gone - every penny.

ZARROLI: Before then, Heimoff had never heard of Madoff, but an investment fund used by him and his family had been feeding money to Madoff's firm. Now that money had vanished. And at age 62, Heimoff was forced to refinance his condo and severely cut back on spending.

HEIMOFF: I just stopped going to restaurants. I stopped buying clothing. I stopped going on vacations. I stopped going to movies.

ZARROLI: The toll his losses would take on Heimoff was considerable.

HEIMOFF: I came very close to suicide for at least a year. It's been very emotionally exhausting. There's an element of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

ZARROLI: In the years since then, Madoff, who's now 80, pleaded guilty and was sent to federal prison - so were six of the people who worked at the firm, including Madoff's brother, Peter. One of Madoff's sons hung himself in his New York apartment. Meanwhile, the court appointed a trustee to try to recover what he could from the wreckage of Madoff's finances. That trustee is Irving Picard. He spoke to NPR's Weekend Edition on Sunday about how he worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

IRVING PICARD: A lot of hard work, some good lawyers working with us and forensic accountants and investigators, and we developed the case from the ground up.

ZARROLI: The fund has so far recovered about $13 billion, partly by selling off Madoff's houses and his 55-foot yacht named Bull. The money will go to Madoff victims. Surprisingly, many of them will get back most of the funds they invested with Madoff, but they're only receiving money they actually put into the fund. Those great returns they thought they were getting, the money in those monthly statements Madoff sent out, virtually all of that is gone. Michael De Vita estimates he'll get back about 60 percent of what he put into Madoff's fund.

MICHAEL DE VITA: I retired in August of 2018 - eight years later than I expected - on less than a third of what I expected to retire on.

ZARROLI: Nor will investors get back much of the taxes they paid over the years on those returns. De Vita has become something of an investor advocate since then and teaches a college course on Madoff. He says a lot of people weren't very sympathetic to Madoff victims.

DE VITA: There was a lot of feelings back at that time that people who were invested with Madoff, quote, "got what they deserved" - that the returns were too good to be true, and therefore you took advantage of the system, and you know what? Ha ha, we got you.

ZARROLI: But De Vita says a lot of Madoff victims weren't sophisticated or rich. They were just average people like himself, people who naively trusted Madoff with their retirement money and have paid a terrible price. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.