As Bernie Madoff gained a reputation as a Wall Street savant, he also acquired an unusual nickname: “The Jewish T-Bill.” The moniker referenced not only the United States Treasury bill — widely seen as a can’t-miss investment — but also Madoff’s heritage. At one point, around 85 percent of his investors were also Jews, aka Members of the Tribe, and included well-known individuals, charities and institutions — from Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel to the Hadassah women’s organization.
As it turned out, Madoff was actually running the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. On December 11, 2008, he was arrested by the FBI, with his investors collectively losing nearly $65 billion — the largest scandal ever on Wall Street.
That scandal is the subject of a new book, “Madoff Talks: Uncovering the Untold Story Behind the Most Notorious Ponzi Scheme in History,” by nationally syndicated US business radio host Jim Campbell, who gained rare access to Madoff and his family. Interest increased when Madoff died in April, with the book published several weeks later.
In a phone interview with The Times of Israel, Campbell called Madoff “a serial financial killer” who “wiped out a lot of people — a lot of Jewish charities, in particular.”
Yet, he said, “When I do interviews, I’m asked how should the world view Bernie. The key takeaway from the book is that the system failed. It enabled him to go on. To the extent we’re saying, ‘This one guy did this bad Ponzi scheme for a long time that destroyed the lives of 16,000 US citizens, 720,000 around the world’… that’s not really the right way to view him. He was not a guy acting alone.”
The author seeks to present a balanced portrayal of Madoff, whom he corresponded with over eight years while the latter served a 150-year prison sentence in North Carolina. It reflects Campbell’s middle-of-the-road, in-depth approach as a radio host.
Over the years, Campbell has helped listeners understand complex issues such as the 2008 global financial crisis, which initially sparked his interest in doing a business-focused talk show. Yet it was another thing entirely to write a book about Madoff once McGraw-Hill took him up on the idea.
In the end, he said, it was “just like radio — write the facts.”
The book incorporates Campbell’s access to three members of the Madoff family — Madoff himself, his wife Ruth Madoff and their late son Andrew Madoff, who died of cancer in 2014. The couple’s other son, Mark Madoff, died by suicide in 2010.
The hard-to-get interviews that resulted in the book were “a series of really kind of fortuitous coincidences,” Campbell said.
It began in October 2011, when author Laurie Sandell unexpectedly connected Campbell with Andrew Madoff, who was cooperating with her on a book. The second bit of serendipity happened that December. Campbell learned that Ruth Madoff was relocating from Florida to his hometown of Old Greenwich, Connecticut. They met for lunch. As Campbell remembered, she came in wearing a coat and sunglasses, ordered a shellfish salad, asked if he was wired and ended up introducing him to her incarcerated husband.
“Bernie said, ‘My wife and son said you are a sincere person; I’m happy to talk to dispel the misconceptions about [me],’” said Campbell, noting that in fact, Andrew hadn’t spoken “one word” to his father since the day before the elder Madoff’s arrest.
“If Bernie reported that Andrew said I was a good guy, it must have come through Ruth,” said Campbell.
From 2011 to 2019, Campbell corresponded with Madoff, including through the Bureau of Prisons email system. Madoff showed what Campbell described as a lack of introspection and talked about himself in the third person, including the memorable line, “Nobody knows why Bernie Madoff did this.” Campbell never got to meet his pen pal in person, and was denied a prison visit on three separate occasions.
Nevertheless, Campbell accumulated 400 pages of correspondence and developed an ambitious idea.
“I wanted to do the first book on the overall architecture of the case,” he said, calling it “kind of a detective story.” Campbell imagined the first part depicting — in reverse chronological order — the day of Madoff’s arrest, his last months at work, and his last year of work.
From temple to temptation
Throughout the book, Campbell explores the Jewish thread that runs through the story.
Madoff was a temple president’s son from Far Rockaway, Queens, who got his start as an investor by convincing his in-laws, the Alperns, to deposit their money with him. When he lost their investments, he borrowed money and paid them back — a precedent he would not repeat again.
With time, Madoff developed a reputation for making money instead of losing it, including among the members of the Palm Beach Country Club after he acquired a home in the South Florida town.
“It was an affinity thing,” Campbell said. “[The club had a] largely Jewish membership. Eventually all of these members said, ‘Give your money to Bernie, he’s safe, you’ll make 11 percent [returns] every year, it’s big, big, big.’ There were some that said they did not know how Bernie did this, it was probably not legal or honest, but he’s our guy, let him do it.”
“Trust needs to be there,” said Campbell, who is not Jewish. “Jewish folks have been thrown out of every country in the world through 1,000 years. Within the Jewish community, you don’t scam somebody financially. He was devastating… It was a Jewish affinity crime.”
Meanwhile, Madoff eluded five investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission. While running his Ponzi scheme, he managed a separate, squeaky-clean business in the same Manhattan office building.
“I found out he was running both businesses side by side,” Campbell marvels. “One of the most ethical and one of the most corrupt on Wall Street, at the same time, in the same place.”
As Campbell explains, “the fully legitimate business on the 19th floor was essentially hiding the criminal business, which was under lock and key on the 17th floor. Even his sons had no access.”
Decline and fall
Ultimately, Campbell writes, it was the 2008 financial collapse that brought down Madoff. It was left to government-appointed bankruptcy trustee Irving Picard to attempt to claw back stolen money for victims. Ironically, Campbell notes, had regulators asked the right questions, they could have discovered Madoff’s chicanery in all of five minutes.
As for Madoff’s family, “I do not believe they were complicit in knowing about the Ponzi scheme,” Campbell said. “They did not realize he had stolen money from the customers.”
Despite not being aware of the Ponzi scheme, said Campbell, Madoff’s family were complicit in his lies — namely Madoff’s misrepresentation of investments, which Campbell called illegitimate and against protocol.
Campbell said he understood why Madoff received a 150-year sentence — “he died without still telling the whole truth.”
Though he had described Madoff as a financial serial killer, Campbell noted that an actual sociopath wouldn’t have used legitimate business funds to pay for family medical needs and home mortgages, as Madoff did. He also points out that Madoff eschewed a trial to spare his wife anguish and potentially get back more money for his clients.
According to Campbell, Madoff had a “Big Four” of investors who extended the longevity of his Ponzi scheme.
“They fed money to him every now and then when he had a cash crisis,” Campbell said. “He grew to hate them. Jeffry Picower, the biggest of the Big Four, took $7 billion out of the Ponzi scheme. Bernie himself is only considered to have snuck out $800 million.”
Campbell’s book also considers whether Madoff, in addition to being a perpetrator, was also himself a victim, of a tax-evasion scheme in which “all kinds of dirty money” was allegedly coming in from Eastern Europe, Russia and Colombia.
“How much he knew how dirty the money was, I don’t know,” Campbell said. “There was more going on than a Ponzi scheme.”
“Only a handful of people in total went to jail,” Campbell said. “Bernie was one. After he died three weeks ago, not a single person was still in jail for this… no one was fired at the SEC, eight people were demoted. You have that, you can’t just say it was Bernie.”
Campbell wonders what might have happened had Madoff survived the 2008 financial collapse.
“He likely would have kept going,” Campbell said. “I calculated to 2021. He would likely have had $240 billion if he kept his 11 percent [rate] in that timeframe.”
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