Blogs & Comment

Bernie Madoff's biggest fraud was as a father

He raised his sons to believe they were something they weren't, knowing their whole world would come crashing down some day.

Bernard Madoff leaves US Federal Court after a hearing regarding his bail on January 14, 2009 in New York. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty)

By now, you probably know the story. But if you’ve already made up your mind, take just a minute to consider the details again.

A few weeks before Christmas, Mark Madoff woke up at four in the morning and crept past the bedroom of his 2 -year-old son, Nick. He sent an e-mail to his wife, Stephanie, who was in Florida with their other child, saying, “Please send someone to take care of Nick.” He followed up with another a few minutes later, which said only, “I love you.”

Stephanie knew that her husband had been distraught as the two-year anniversary of Bernie Madoff’s arrest for running a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme approached. Mark and his brother, Andrew, had worked for their father’s firm. They were the ones to whom he confessed his crime. They were the ones who turned him in to the police, and their lives had been on hold ever since. The e-mails alarmed her, and she tried to call the apartment, but Mark didn’t answer, so she called her stepfather. Shortly after 7 a.m., he got to the apartment and found Mark dead. He had taken the dog’s leash, wrapped it around an exposed pipe in the living room ceiling, and hanged himself. Nick was asleep in the next room.

That was a month ago, and with Bernie serving a 150-year prison sentence, the whole Madoff saga is fading into history. But before we close this book, let’s state one hard truth for the record: of all his many crimes, the greatest by far was not the money Bernie Madoff stole or the clients he betrayed. It was what he did to his family.

I know many will balk at the notion that a Madoff was the ultimate victim of the scandal. In the hours after Mark’s suicide was revealed, web comments efficiently articulated the deep well of hatred toward the name and all it stands for. “One less Madoff in the world, Good Riddance,” said one anonymous poster to a business news site. “He got what he deserved, and poetically from his own hand,” said another. Some saw it as evidence that Mark was a co-conspirator, and killed himself out of guilt and fear of being exposed.

Maybe. But he maintained his innocence right to the end. For two years, countless investigators and lawyers pored over every scrap of paper and computer file that the firm had ever produced. Not only was Mark never charged, but no evidence of his culpability ever emerged. It may be hard to muster any sympathy for a man who ends his life while his son sleeps in the next room, but an act like that can only be explained as the result of mental illness. As for the Madoffs “getting what they deserve,” there’s still enough Catholic school contrition rattling around my brain to keep me from sharing the schadenfreude. I’m quite sure I don’t know what any of us really “deserve,” and I suspect Mark Madoff was haunted by demons that we will never understand.

Bernie Madoff raised two sons to believe that they were something they were not. He did so knowing full well that their entire world was built on a foundation of sand, and would undoubtedly come crashing down one day. Maybe he figured it would only come to light after he was dead and gone. But he had to realize that at some point his sons were going to be confronted by the knowledge that their lives were a lie. Everything they had would be taken away: wealth, family and, maybe biggest of all, reputation. They would share in his guilt, even if they had no knowledge of the crime. Mark found himself radioactive. A handful of close friends stuck by him, but nobody could give him a job in the only field he knew. The stench of suspicion followed him everywhere.

People still say it’s impossible that the sons could have been so close to such a huge fraud and not have known what was going on. Perhaps. But isn’t it just as implausible to think that they could have been in on it for years and not left a single scrap of incriminating evidence?

Guilty or innocent, it’s a moot point now. Whatever he knew or didn’t, Mark would never be afforded the forgiveness of a whistle-blower. He was a Madoff. That was Bernie’s legacy to his eldest boy: a poisoned surname and none of the strength he’d need to overcome it. Stripped of his job, money and status, estranged from his parents, saddled with shame and facing the prospect of years of litigation to protect what he had left, he gave up, and compounded his father’s sins by abandoning his own children. Maybe someone stronger could have handled it. His brother found a way to go on, working behind the scenes for his fiancee’s consulting business. But Mark wasn’t that strong.

So let the epitaph for Bernie Madoff state first — not that he was a thief, but that he was a criminally negligent father. And only a higher power can decide what punishment that deserves.

Steve Maich is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian Business.