March 4, 2010 / 4:35 PM / in 8 years

Business Books: Chasing Madoff, for justice and dollars

<p>Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff (2nd L) attends his sentencing hearing in New York in this court artist's sketch completed June 29, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Shepard</p>

BOSTON (Reuters) - Harry Markopolos’ book “No One Would Listen” is full of details about his dispiriting efforts to alert the authorities to Bernard Madoff’s $65 billion fraud.

But a parallel theme is perhaps equally interesting: his account of how he has made a career as what is best described as a professional whistleblower facilitator.

Reports from whistleblowers can generate millions of dollars in recoveries for individuals and their attorneys under federal anti-fraud laws that allow them a share of the funds that the government collects from fraudsters -- bounties for tips, in other words.

But the rules also have drawn the ire of businesses, who say the rules turn workers into spies for prosecutors when they might otherwise simply report problems internally.

Markopolos’ tale will provide ammunition for both sides.

Markopolos writes that he first tried to report Madoff out of self-interest, to remove him as a competing asset manager. Markopolos also had in mind that he could collect a bounty for his work, though eventually he learned that regulators did not pay these for Ponzi schemes.

According to the book, Markopolos had hoped to use an appearance before Congress last year to emphasize the importance of whistle-blowers. But that argument was mostly lost amid the scorn he heaped on the Securities and Exchange Commission in his testimony.

Markopolos repeatedly blasted the agency as incompetent and he has since dismissed many reform measures by the agency’s new leaders as inadequate.

Meanwhile the rewards available to whistle-blowers also seem to have informed the SEC’s view of Markopolos as being out only for personal gain, officials said later. One said that since Markopolos did not work for Madoff, “he wasn’t technically a whistleblower.”

Indeed, as the book relates, by the middle of the decade Markopolos had set himself up as a new kind of for-profit fraud investigator.

In that role, his aim was to recruit whistleblowers at companies he suspected of defrauding the government, and match them with lawyers who would take on their cases. An ally was Taxpayers Against Fraud, the Washington nonprofit with roughly the same mission.

Some worry the industry that has grown up around laws like the False Claims Act exploits the rules and tilts the playing field against companies doing business with the government.

Since 2004, for instance, in two major cases brought by whistleblowers, juries have acquitted executives who worked for drug companies near Boston. Both companies had already agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle related federal investigations, unwilling to risk trials.

Markopolos makes no apologies for the system, however, and calls it necessary to reward whistleblowers for their lonely and potentially stigmatizing work. He even writes that he did not flag his doubts about Madoff to a friend, a risk manager at Oppenheimer Funds, which owned Madoff’s second-largest investor, Tremont Capital Management. In an interview, Markopolos said he worried about retaliation.

Markopolos also describes his continuing disillusionment with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, even aside from the Madoff case.

Markopolos hoped the agency would join with him to pursue other whistleblower claims he had brought forward against financial firms that potentially could have netted him millions of dollars.

When the agency passed up the tips, his frustration boiled over. “These guys are good for nothing!” he recounts screaming at one point. “They’re never gonna get it!”

In his book, Markopolos describes what he calls the first of his whistleblower cases to emerge from under seal, a claim against the Boston bank State Street Corp.

He will keep looking for more, especially against financial and healthcare companies which, he writes, “makes me think I‘m going to be in the whistleblower business for a long, long time.”

Reporting by Ross Kerber; Editing by Eddie Evans

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