NEW YORK - Five former employees of Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernard Madoff were found guilty on charges they aided and profited from the decades-long fraud the disgraced financier used to bilk an estimated $20 billion from investors.
Rejecting defense arguments that the five didn't know about the scam and were duped by their boss, a Manhattan federal court jury of eight women and three men returned the verdict after 18 hours of deliberation over four days in the first criminal trial stemming from Madoff's investment advisory business.
Fifty-nine times the jury foreman called out "guilty" as Judge Laura Taylor Swain asked for the jury's verdict on each c harge brought against each defendant.
The five-month trial featured a drumbeat of evidence that the ex-employees conspired with Madoff to fool investors by fabricating and backdating records of financial trades that purportedly generated eerily steady investment returns.
Instead, money from average investors, charities, celebrities, financial institutions and other victims bankrolled a life of luxury for Madoff, riches for the defendants — and financial ruin for many of those who trusted the now-disgraced financier.
The trial was one of the longest white-collar crime cases in Manhattan federal court history. It was decided by 11 jurors, one less than the normal number, because one member of the panel became ill during the deliberations.
The proceeding provided the first public glimpse into the workings of the mid-Manhattan offices where Madoff often berated and bullied staffers, yet was viewed by many employees and unwitting investors as a virtual god.
He correctly calculated that federal securities regulators wouldn't double-check trading records if the financial institutions purportedly involved were based overseas. He ensured that falsified financial records have the same typeface, data layout and paper as authentic ones. And he constantly lied to regulators, auditors, employees and others.
A parade of nearly 40 witnesses for the prosecution repudiated Madoff's claim that he acted alone in running the scheme from the 1970s until Dec. 11, 2008, the day he confessed to relatives that he'd long used funds from some investors to pay others.
His subsequent arrest exploded in newspaper, TV and electronic media headlines. The former Nasdaq chairman pleaded guilty in 2009 without standing trial, and is now serving a 150-year prison term.
The defendants are: Daniel Bonventre, 67, Madoff's ex-director of operations; Annette Bongiorno, 65, a former executive assistant who managed the firm's longest-standing clients; JoAnn Crupi, 52, who oversaw the company's bank account; and former Madoff computer programmers Jerome O'Hara, 50, and George Perez, 48.
Trial testimony and documents showed high Madoff salaries and bogus investment gains enabled Bongiorno to buy a Florida vacation home, while Crupi and Bongiorno bought ocean getaways on the New Jersey shore. Bonventre and Crupi also used company-paid credit cards to pay for vacation trips and cover many other personal expenses, evidence showed.
Prosecution testimony by former Madoff henchman Frank DiPascali, 57, provided many of the seemingly damning details. He pleaded guilty in 2009, and cut a cooperation deal with prosecutors in hope of winning leniency from the maximum 125-year prison term he faces when sentenced.
DiPascali, a college dropout who rose from entry-level gofer to the manager of the phony trading business, testified that Madoff told him he was running out of money eight days before the collapse. The confession came as a shock, because DiPascali testified he'd believed Madoff's frequent lies about having bank ownership investments and other assets.
He also recounted his unsuccessful effort to reassure Ruth Madoff when the boss' pale and visibly shell-shocked wife came to the office before the company's end-of-year holiday party just before the scam collapsed.
DiPascali provided evidence that allegedly showed each of his five former co-workers knowingly participated in and profited from the scam.
Speaking in a gravelly New York City-area accent during more than two weeks on the witness stand, he testified that Bongiorno and Crupi created fictionalized investor account records and crafted investor reports based on trading results drawn from back issues of The Wall Street Journal.
O'Hara and Perez sought payment in diamonds when they balked at producing ever-changing computer programs to change financial records, he said. One of the programmers offered a dinner toast to "tricking the auditors" the night before a 2005 record review by accounting giant KPMG, DiPascali testified.
Bonventre was in the room when Madoff held a copy of a bogus report up to a window's light and commented "how great it was," said DiPascali. Bonventre also told investigators something like "this is where the secrets are, or this is where the bodies are buried" when he handed over financial advisory records after the scam collapsed, DiPascali testified.
The former operations manager denied the allegations after making a surprise decision to testify in his own defense.
Defense lawyers focused much of their legal strategy on trying to paint the star witness as a chronic and polished liar, as well as poke holes in other parts of the government case.
Their questioning showed that DiPascali during his 2009 guilty plea statement said he'd known "from at least the early 1990s" that Madoff didn't do any trading for investors. On the witness stand, DiPascali testified he'd reached that realization as far back as the late 1970s.
The cross-examination largely failed to shake key details of DiPascali's testimony. But the defense teams undercut some claims, such as his insistence that one motivation for cooperating with prosecutors was to help untangle the fraud and provide some measure of help for the Ponzi scheme's victims.
Asked how he felt about sending falsely reassuring financial reports to Holocaust victim and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel and other Madoff scam victims, DiPascali offered a only a verbal shrug.
"I didn't have any feelings about them one way or the other," he said.
In presenting their own cases, defense lawyers called character witnesses who testified to the former co-workers' honesty and integrity.
Bongiorno, the only other defendant who took the witness stand in her own defense, testified that she knew nothing about the fraud and was unaware of such securities industry basics as the Standard & Poor's 500 index and U.S. Treasury bills.
Bongiorno told jurors she revered Madoff, and carried out his instructions virtually without fail.
Crupi's defense enabled the jury to see and hear Madoff himself via video excerpts of a 2007 financial conference at which he claimed that stringent U.S. securities regulations made it impossible for any broker to run a major scam for long. The presentation let jurors experience how persuasive the scam mastermind could be as he lied.
Attorneys for O'Hara and Perez introduced letters the computer programmers wrote and mailed to themselves in 2006, shortly before their confrontation with Madoff over repeated orders for alterations customer records. The doctored files were used to trick auditors and regulators, trial evidence showed.
While the prosecution characterized the mini-revolt as a financial shakedown of Madoff, defense lawyers argued the letters documented the programmers' innocent state mind before a "courageous" decision to defy their boss.