The Amazing Harry Markopolos

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Why is he making the Spitzer face? He didn't do anything wrong! Photo: Courtesy Boston Globe

“I was a $50 billion failure.” That might sound like Bernie Madoff in a desperate moment, but no: It’s Harry Markopolos, the 52-year-old Boston accountant who years ago alerted the government to the largest Ponzi scheme of all time, only to be told, “Thanks very much. Now go away, you silly crank.” Of all the shame and humiliation that the Madoff story has rained down on the financial world — on the clueless feeder funds that steered money his way, on the regulators who were handed the goods on Madoff and shitcanned it, on the family that now claims ignorance of the gargantuan fraud perpetrated in their midst — here’s the one guy who heartily deserves to bask in at least fifteen minutes of fame, and now, he says, he wants nothing whatsoever to do with it. “Why would people think I feel good about this?” he says. “People think I’m a hero, but I didn’t stop him. He stopped himself.” And he scoffs at the offers from Hollywood he's been receiving steadily since the story broke: “They’ll just add in sex and violence.”

You couldn't blame them. Markopolos, whom one colleague describes as "quiet and analytical," isn't exactly the dashing, Cary Grant–in–North By Northwest figure one producer imagines him to be. (He's more Russell Crowe in The Insider: a science geek with a comb-over.) His role in the Madoff saga began in 2000, when the hedge fund he was working at asked him to figure out how to match the fantastically consistent returns produced by Madoff in options trading. Markopolos studied the markets and deduced it couldn’t be done: Madoff had to be cheating — either by front-running, which would’ve involved trading on advance information about customer orders from his market-making firm, or by the good ol' doomed-to-fail Ponzi method. Before long, the world-weary numbers cruncher settled on the latter and wrote a series of whistleblowing memos to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Memos that they, as we're now painfully aware, dismissed.

But it's not just the SEC that Markopolos blames for allowing Madoff's scheme to reach such epic proportions. The press, he said, "wasn’t listening to me," suggesting that after failing to arouse the interest of the SEC, he went to reporters, who were equally unreceptive. Which means that someone, somewhere, was handed a ready-made Pulitzer, or at least the chance to be the Bethany McLean of the Madoff scandal, and blew it big time. We bet that person wants to stay out of the limelight, too.

The Whistleblower [Boston Globe]