Sympathy for a Madoff

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Photo: CBS

Andrew Madoff, who died yesterday of cancer at age 48, was the last surviving child of Bernie Madoff, the greatest Ponzi schemer in history, and in some ways the most tragic member of the family. 

Bernie, who spoke to New York extensively in the past, still periodically issues self-defensive interviews from prison. The extent to which his wife, Ruth, knew about his crimes has long been debated; she now lives in semi-isolation in Connecticut. Andrew’s younger brother Mark hanged himself in 2010, on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest. But Andrew, who managed the legal side of Madoff's business and was never criminally accused of complicity in the Ponzi scheme, was determined to survive. He was trying to get on with his life and investing in several part-time projects. But mainly, in conversation with me over the past few years, he’d talked about not making the same mistakes as his brother. After their father’s arrest, Mark had buried himself in his father’s case and it overwhelmed him. “He isolated himself,” was Andrew’s view. “One of the things that was so important for me was not isolating myself. [For a long time,] it was very difficult to even leave the house. But throughout the last few years, I was always going, getting out there, meeting people.”

As best he could, Andrew tried to remain proud of who he was. For decades, that had been easy. Bernie was a giant on Wall Street — one irony of the Madoff scandal was that Bernie didn’t need the money, and Andrew idolized him. “He was always the go-to guy in the industry for any big sort of crisis or issue that happened. And he did that all on his own,” Andrew told me. Later reports circulated that Madoff bullied his sons, but the truth was more nuanced. “My feelings about him are tremendously complicated, but he was a very loving father. He went out of his way to express pride in me and Mark.” 

Bernie put his sons in charge of the legitimate side of the business, and they did well. Being a Madoff opened doors on Wall Street — until Bernie's scheme was exposed. Andrew's father had not only stolen billions of dollars from strangers; he had also poisoned the lives of his sons. Andrew felt betrayed and wrote him off. “My father is dead to me,” he said. Bernie wrote letters; Andrew wouldn’t open them.

Without Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, where he’d worked his entire adult life, Andrew was adrift. He eventually remarried and his wife pushed him. “You gotta get out there,” she told him. No one on Wall Street would even take a meeting with him. And when we spoke three years after his father’s arrest, Andrew was still in the midst of sorting out his life. He acted upbeat. He talked of his ventures. He had founded a fishing company some years earlier and was putting time into that and an energy-related company. He was helping his wife with her new venture, an emergency-preparedness business. He talked about his determination to move forward, but he acknowledged it was difficult.

The past wouldn’t let go. The trustee for the victims pursued him, accusing him of complicity in his father’s schemes, and everywhere he went people wondered if it were true. He got tired of explaining that he hadn’t been involved in his father’s asset-management business, which was the corrupt part of the company. Few believed him anyhow. He was never charged criminally, unlike his father and uncle. But, as critics pointed out, he had profited from his father’s crimes. He’d given his father money to invest and gotten those preternaturally steady returns. The trustees wanted him to pay back all the money he’d made, and Andrew seemed to spend much of his time fighting the case in court.

Cancer was another demon from his past. It runs in the family. A first cousin had died of lymphoma at age 32. Andrew had successfully battled the disease ten years earlier, but in the past few months reports trickled out that he’d had a recurrence. He blamed the relapse on his father: "One way to think of this is the scandal and everything that happened killed my brother very quickly," Andrew told People in April 2013. "And it's killing me slowly."