Let's not kid ourselves. Bernard Madoff built his $65 billion Ponzi empire at least half on the backs of his feeder funds, like the one charged this week, Fairfield Greenwich Group, with a civil complaint by William F. Galvin, Massachusetts Secretary of State.
Fairfield, Madoff's largest feeder, with some $7 billion invested in his mad world, was run by socialite Walter Noel. But there were dozens of others run by a variety of unregistered funds and characters, including the Ascot Partners fund, run by Ezra Merkin, and on the West Coast, the Brighton Co., run by Stanley Chais, one of three he ran. (See pictures of the demise of Bernie Madoff.)
Through this entanglement of feeder funds, international hedge funds, sub-partnerships and pension funds, with thousands of unsuspecting investors, Madoff was able to keep his house of cards standing much longer than he otherwise could have with his ragtag band of family members, small-time accountants and clerks furiously cranking out false statements.
Galvin alleges in his complaint that Fairfield had "complete disregard of its fiduciary duties to its investors" and made "flagrant and recurring misrepresentations to its investors to the level of fraud." A Fairfield spokesperson said the complaint was false and misleading.
There were a couple of factors at play with Madoff feeder funds. The first: the giddily enormous fees for the feeders.
Having been a victim myself, through Madoff's West Coast feeder stalwart Chais, I know firsthand all about the high fees: 25% of income earned. Chais isn't talking, but that adds up to real money, enough to create, in his case, a foundation, the Chais Family Foundation, purportedly worth $175 million before Madoff's arrest on Dec. 11, 2008. The foundation is now kaput, as is Chais' financial sub-empire and as is, for that matter, my retirement. Chais has several lawsuits pending against him, including one by Eric Roth, the Hollywood screenwriter.
Anyone investing with Chais, Merkin and Noel probably never heard of Bernard Madoff. Why? Simple: the money.
Remember, we, the investors, didn't know we were in feeder funds. We were in funds, be it pension funds or partnerships, that pooled monies to be invested in a primary investment fund that was managed by people we trusted, smart people that really had an angle on beating the market. Or so we thought. Had we known our life savings were being shunted over to another party that actually did the real work, we may have invested elsewhere. After all, why would we pay such piggy fees to people that did nothing?
Had our trustworthy fund managers had the fiduciary decency to tell us that Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC was controlling our fates we may have had a shot at changing things: we could have done our own research the research our fund managers were supposed to be doing for us, right? But, of course, they didn't. Why? The money. It was just too good to let us, the simple-minded investors, foolish enough to think this was all on the up and up, know too much, to raise concern, to cause trouble with perfectly legal, unregistered, multibillion-dollar funds that worked hard to stay under government radar. Legally, they didn't have to say a thing to us.
Hence, the cone of secrecy was pulled down tight from day one.
This is the second factor, what you might call the other big lie the one Galvin is getting at of the Madoff Ponzi scheme: the feeders and Madoff conspiring together to keep basic due-diligence issues from clients, even as Madoff lied to his own feeder-fund generals, even as he lied to government regulators. Everyone turned a blind eye, everyone was in bed on this, including down the line the hapless investor who trusted all those years.See the top 10 scandals of 2008.