Thursday, October 29th, 2009
I just finished Andrew Kirtzman’s excellent book, “Betrayal: The Life And Lies of Bernie Madoff,” which traces the evolution of an ambitious kid who started a lawn-sprinkler business into the man who would steal billions and wreck thousands of lives.
Madoff’s roots go back to the postwar middle-class Jewish community in Laurelton, Queens, living in the shadow of the opulent Five Towns and obsessed with moving up the economic ladder. While at times Kirtzman paints with too broad a brush, passively indicting the vast majority of such families who succeeded or failed in lives built on honest hard work, it can’t be denied that, as in many struggling communities, greed became a core value for too many. Including the Madoffs.
I believe Kirtzman was first to report the fascinating tidbit that Madoff’s parents ran a questionable securities practice out of their living room. According to Kirtzman’s research, Gibraltar Securities, registered in the name of Sylvia Madoff, was investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1963, and shut down the following year in an agreement that included no legal action.
“Their activities were shrouded in secrecy,” writes Kirtzman. “Sylvia failed to file at least one year’s worth of financial statements disclosing the company’s activities to the SEC.” A former friend of Bernie told Kirtzman that the future Ponzi schemer worked as a stockbroker while a student at Hofstra, without a license, clearing the trades through his father. But Kirtzman found no license for Ralph Madoff, either.
In the most generous judgment, maybe the Madoffs thought skirting the rules was a victimless crime justified by their need to advance financially. But this seems a textbook case of how it’s impossible to predict the damage that comes from setting bad examples for kids. They will naturally emulate, and go much farther than, their parents.
Did Ralph and Sylvia Madoff deliberately cultivate the biggest thief in history? Probably not, but it turned out that way.
It makes you wonder what might have become of an impressionable young man with seemingly unlimited ambition and energy if his parents had modeled good deeds and integrity.