Convicted fraudster Bernie Madoff does not believe that he owes any specific debt to his Jewish coreligionists, many of whom – both individuals and organizations – were devastated by his actions.
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“I don’t feel any worse for a Jewish person than I do for a Catholic person,” Madoff told the Politico news website during a wide-ranging interview last week. “Religion had nothing to do with it.”
Madoff was interviewed at the Butner medium-security prison in North Carolina, where he is serving a 150-year sentence. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to massive investment and securities fraud, admitting to a years-long deception that shattered the lives of thousands of clients — a list that included millionaire investors, middle-class retirees, college endowments and philanthropic organizations.
Madoff was well-known within New York’s Jewish community, and his fraud - which estimates put as high as $65 billion - was a particularly deep betrayal of charities, groups and individuals he had access to through Jewish circles.
Pressed on the issue of his debt to the Jewish community, Madoff said: “I don’t feel that I betrayed the Jews, I betrayed people,” before adding, “I betrayed people that put trust in me — certainly the Jewish community. I’ve made more money for Jewish people and charities than I’ve lost.”
Robert Lappin, the founder of a Jewish non-profit that had all of its assets invested with Madoff and was forced to temporarily close when Madoff’s scheme collapsed, told Politico that there was “no doubt” that Jewish investors felt acutely betrayed by Madoff because he had presented himself as “a generous member of the Jewish community.”
Lappin, who lost $22 million of his own money invested with Madoff, expressed no surprise when told of Madoff’s comments.
“He’s a person that lacks empathy and really understanding of the enormous harm that he did,” he said. “I think that in a sense, he’s lived a life of denial.”
Madoff insisted to Politico that he never intended his deception to grow as large as it did. He said repeatedly during the interview that he originally had a successful business that made a lot of money for many clients, but when he suffered a big loss in the early 1990s, he started the Ponzi scheme to try to unwind the damage.
The idea was “wrong” and “shameful,” but he said he wishes people could understand that it was never his intention to deceive his clients for so long.
“I don’t believe I’m a bad person. I did a lot of good for people. I made huge sums of money for some people,” he said. “It wasn’t just for money. I already had huge amounts of money. It wasn’t to buy yachts or homes. I had that from the beginning from legitimate money I made.”
Madoff, who is now 75 and suffering from kidney disease, said he believes in God and that he prays every day for the health of his family – virtually all of whom have cut off all contact with him. His son, Mark, hanged himself in December 2010 at the age of 46.
Asked whether he was afraid of dying, Madoff answered "No. I don’t have anything to live for.”
“The thing that was important to me was family, but that’s all gone,” he said. “That’s more punishment than being incarcerated.”