Business Books: Bernard Madoff, scoundrel

Mon Aug 10, 2009 4:34pm EDT
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By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Bernard Madoff earned his place in Wall Street infamy by stealing billions of dollars from people who did not know any better.

Or did they? Was it too much to expect investors, as well as regulators, to know or suspect that the steady, 8 percent to 12 percent annual returns that the avuncular Madoff seemed to generate in all sorts of markets were a sham? Why were whistle-blowers like Harry Markopolos given such short shrift? Or did people just not want to believe Madoff was a thief?

Tapping into the interest in Madoff, one of the newer tenants of the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina, publishers are racing out books on the mastermind of the $65 billion Ponzi scheme that devastated charities and duped people like director Steven Spielberg and Nobel prize-winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel out of millions.

Erin Arvedlund's "Too Good To Be True: The Rise and Fall of Bernie Madoff" (Portfolio, $25.95) and Andrew Kirtzman's "Betrayal: The Life and Lies of Bernie Madoff" (Harper, $25.99) take readers through a trail of deception that culminated in a 150-year prison sentence for Madoff, now 71.

Both authors agree Madoff's shady business dealings started early, though it is unclear when he began his Ponzi scheme, which involved using the money from newer investors to repay older investors.

The gift for illusion apparently started early in life. Both books say Madoff tried to fool a high-school English teacher by delivering an oral report on the nonexistent book "Hunting and Fishing" by Peter Gunn, though he had read nothing for the assignment. (Perhaps this, too, was apocryphal; the "Peter Gunn" TV series did not air until a few years later.)

For the native of middle-class Laurelton, New York, whom Kirtzman says "never felt he was good enough," Madoff built cachet through his market-making business, being early to embrace computers and technology. He would become chairman of Nasdaq, and his businesses would take over three floors in the Lipstick Building in midtown Manhattan.

But it was Madoff's investment advisory business on the 17th floor that was a source of mystery even to those who worked in the market-making business on the two floors above. The whole operation was shy of infrastructure -- run, as Kirtzman puts it, "like a small family restaurant."   Continued...

<p>Bernard Madoff leaves the Manhattan federal courthouse in New York March 10, 2009. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton</p>