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Published: Sunday, 7/5/2009

Lessons from Bernie

PERHAPS Bernie Madoff's 150-year sentence for running a giant Ponzi scheme that defrauded hundreds of investors provides some sense of closure to the individuals and institutions bilked out of billions of dollars by the self-confessed swindler, but we find ourselves strangely unsatisfied.

It is difficult to view the sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge Denny Chin as anything more than empty symbolism, possibly comforting to Madoff's victims but accomplishing little else. Anything more than 20 years in prison served no practical purpose because, at 71, he is unlikely to live even that long.

Indeed, if sentences that exceed the human life span really are a deterrent, then the 845 years meted out to New York businessman Sholam Weiss in 2000 for his role in the collapse of National Heritage Life Insurance ought to have given Madoff second thoughts.

Unanswered also is the question of who else knew about the Ponzi scheme. Madoff insists he worked alone, pulling the wool over the eyes of family and employees alike, but that hardly seems credible. Federal investigators seem to share that skepticism, and a probe involving at least 10 Madoff associates may shed more light on who knew what and when.

It is also unclear how much investors actually lost. Estimates - including the illusory gains they thought they were making - range as high as $65 billion. Real losses - investments plus more reasonable returns - will be much lower, and some investors will be able to recoup a portion of their losses as Madoff's assets are liquidated.

And it should not be forgotten that the people, pension funds, hedge funds, and others that gave their money to Madoff did so because he promised returns much higher than could be had elsewhere. Madoff's marks - including institutional investors that should have known that returns that appear unreal frequently are, in fact, not real - were not overly inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth by asking too many questions.

More disturbing, however, was the failure of the Securities and Exchange Commission to heed repeated warnings years ago that Madoff's investment business stank of fraud.

The reason the SEC looked the other way was not so different from the reason Madoff's investors turned a blind eye: Just as in the AIG scandal, so much money was being made by financial firms of such impeccable reputation for so many people that regulators chose to ignore warning signs.

The Obama Administration is pushing for more rigorous federal regulation of the nation's financial system to prevent, among other things, future Bernie Madoffs. But no amount of new regulation will be effective if the agencies charged with enforcing the current rules allow themselves to be blinded by dollars.

That, not the number of decades in prison one swindler is sentenced to, would provide real comfort to investors.



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