NEW YORK — Bernard Madoff will get one last creature comfort before he is sentenced today, probably to serve out the rest of his days in prison. The judge has given him permission to don his own clothes for the hearing, rather than a jail uniform.
Jack Cutter is wearing something special, too, these days: a butcher’s smock.
The 80-year-old from Longmont, Colo. had to go back to work after he lost his retirement savings in Madoff’s massive swindle. He used to be a petroleum engineer. Now he spends his weekdays toiling in the meat department at a Safeway supermarket. The gig pays $8.64 per hour.
“It’s a tough job,” he said. “Eight hours on my feet.”
But with money tight, he has no choice but to stick it out in the only job he could find. “My slide rule skills were pretty much outmoded,” he said.
Madoff’s fraud, maybe the biggest in Wall Street history, wiped out thousands of people around the globe. Not all of them were Palm Beach millionaires.
A sizable roster of public school teachers, farmers, mechanics and other middle class folk are also among the victims. Many had been enjoying a comfortable retirement until Madoff’s arrest in December. Now, nest eggs gone, they are struggling to pay the bills.
Help isn’t on the way anytime soon.
Prosecutors, who have asked a federal judge in Manhattan to sentence Madoff to 150 years, have promised to seize his assets and force him to pay restitution. On Friday, a judge ruled Madoff must forfeit $171 billion in assets, and his wife Ruth was stripped of more than $80 million in net worth she claimed was hers.
Yet, six months after his arrest, prosecutors still don’t know exactly how much money he took or what victims might hope to eventually recover. With their financial futures grim, many of the con-man’s victims are in no position to take pleasure in his moment of reckoning.
“It’s real easy to be very, very angry at Mr. Madoff. He’s a complete scam artist,” said Cutter. “But my immediate concern is, how long can I continue doing this?”
He has cut household living expenses to a bare minimum, is thinking about selling his house and rides the bus to work, but recently had to cut his weekly hours at the supermarket from 40 to 32 because of the physical toll.
Even in prison, Madoff will likely be spared that type of hard labour.
The swindler’s fate has been nearly a foregone conclusion since his confession in December.
At the time, investors thought they had $64 billion stashed away in their Madoff accounts. In reality, there was less than $1 billion.
Madoff was supposed to have invested the money in stocks. Instead, he ran a classic Ponzi scheme, using new deposits to pay bogus returns.
A few longtime Madoff clients appear to have reaped huge benefits from his scheme.
The court-appointed trustee unravelling Madoff’s books filed a lawsuit against investment entrepreneur Jeffry Picower, demanding that he return $5.1 billion he withdrew from his Madoff accounts over the years. Hedge fund managers and other marketers who steered client dollars to Madoff also reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in fees based on bogus profits, and the trustee has sought the return of that cash too.
Whatever money is recovered will eventually be pooled and divided up among the victims. Some people who invested directly with Madoff will also qualify for up to $500,000 in payments from the Securities Investor Protection Corp., an industry-funded group.
But those efforts might do little for those who need help most — the thousands of smalltimers who entrusted their 401(k) and IRA plans to money managers, who then placed the money with Madoff, often without their clients’ knowledge.
Those so-called “indirect” investors don’t qualify for the $500,000 SIPC payment because of a legal technicality.
That leaves people like Karen Audet, a retired elementary school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., wondering what to do next.
She rolled $225,000 from her retirement plan into a fund run by a well-regarded member of her church, who in turn invested it with Madoff. Now, it’s all gone.
If she had known Madoff personally and invested with him directly, she might be able to get every dime of her investment back through SIPC. Instead, she may get almost nothing.
For now, she said, the only solution is for her husband to put off retirement and keep working, even after recent sextuple bypass surgery.
“We really did need that money very much,” she said. “I am in constant anguish.”