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ID Investigates: The Madoff Mystery

In this ID Investigates series premiere, Bernard Madoff's "mystery" remains pretty much intact.

ID Investigates: The Madoff Mystery

Airtime: Monday, 9pm ET
Cast: Thalia Assuras (reporter), Willard Foxton, Stephen Greenspan, Suzanne Murphy
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: Investigation Discovery
Air date: 2009-12-07
He appeared to be a really nice kind man, like somebody's grandfather.

-- Norma Hill

Everyone's seen the footage of Bernard Madoff making his way past roughneck reporters. You've seen his dark blue baseball cap, his bulky winter coat, and the look of surprise on his face when a photographer literally pushes him back to get a better shot. How did this rich, smug old man get to be so reviled? What was he thinking as he bilked friends and famous people of millions? And by what sort of institutional mechanisms was he able to mange so much money for so long?

While intriguing, none of these questions is answered in The Madoff Mystery. Despite its title, this premiere installment of Investigation Discovery's new "series of specials," "ID Investigates," doesn't have much new to say concerning 'this epic con man." Introduced and energetically narrated by Thalia Assuras, the program promises to "go deep into the tragic stories of Madoff's marks," to allow the victims to "tell us their personal experiences." But even this potential melodrama is only touched on, as victims describe in general terms their rage and grief, as well as their disbelief at their own gullibility. "Bernie was not a moral man," Norma Hill says. "The returns were not amazing, but they were very consistent," recalls Lord Jacobs. "It did cross my mind that it could be a ponzi scheme."

This thought actually crossed more than one mind, but apparently not enough to investigate, challenge, or even look into how the scheme was working. By the sounds of it, the Madoff scheme was close enough to business as usual so that a couple of things became possible: 1) investors could convince themselves they were just lucky (hedge fund manager Suzanne Murphy says, "Groucho Marx said, 'I never want to be a member of a club that I could get into,' and Bernie Madoff took that philosophy to the nth degree by creating himself as an exclusive club"); and 2) regulators could look the other way. It's also likely that Madoff was and is not the only schemer of this sort, though he was a monumentally successful one. As "ponzi expert" James Walsh puts it, as such plots always end the same way, becoming "too big to perpetuate."

Describing how typical the scheme was doesn’t help to explain how it kept on for decades, or how those who did try to flag it were ignored or repressed. The program does note that analyst Harry Markopolos tried to alert the SEC concerning Madoff's illicit activities, but was rebuffed, and that after the scandal broke in late 2008, he was called before Congress, where one member complains, "The SEC continues to roar like a lion and fight like a mouse." But no one has come been punished except Madoff, the show reports, meaning, more business as usual.

The victims who have the chance to speak here have plenty to be mad about. John Macoby calls him a "sociopath." Stephen Greenspan, a "world renowned expert on gullibility" and author of Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It, believed the lies, losing some $400,000 ("Any human being not living in a cave by himself can be swindled or duped," he doesn't quite explain). And journalist Willard Foxton's decorated war veteran father committed suicide when faced with his losses. The son says that his first inclination was to throw his father's medals in Madoff's face, "to make him know the sort of man he killed." He decided against that, and instead to interview victims and associates: The Madoff Mystery crew follows him as he speaks with a driver ("What did he say in the car with you?") as well as to Madoff's "relatively modest" Palm Beach $7.4 million mansion, where he peeps in windows and espies the children's drawings, left behind on the refrigerator.

Other victims raise the question of the "Jewish community"'s sense of betrayal by Madoff. "This is a terrible disgrace for the Jewish people," says one man, "That one of our own could do this to our own. This is a behavior, which is just so anti-ethical to what Jewish principles are or should be, that I think we're all very, very embarrassed about it." The Madoff Mystery reminds you that Jewish celebrities like Steven Spielberg and Elie Weisel were bilked, but again, it stops there, at the noting. Madoff's "mystery" remains pretty much intact.


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