There have been many Ponzis in the past and there will be many Ponzis in the future, but it will take at least a century before we see another $50 billion Bernard Madoff Ponzi.Carlo "Charles" Ponzi was born in 1882 in Parma, Italy. He migrated to the United States in 1903 when he was 21, and over the next 14 years, he bounced from city to city in New England working in various jobs such as waiter, clerk and translator of Italian.
Ponzi was nice-looking and charismatic; in 1919, he established a firm titled the Securities Exchange Co. where he promised a 50 percent return within 90 days. Ponzi's scheme caused immediate excitement and soon there were lines outside his office on School Street in Boston. Anxious investors purchased Ponzi promissory notes ranging from $10 to $50,000. Ponzi's scheme generated $1 million per week and his fraud typically involved paying early investors with money received from new investors.
Ponzi's scheme also involved trading fictitious Postal Reply Coupons at 200-percent profit. Since Ponzi had used the mail to notify his victims of how their "investments" were performing, he faced serious mail fraud charges. In total, the government brought 86 charges against him in two separate indictments. Ponzi pled guilty to one of these charges in exchange for a lighter sentence of five years. He served about three-and-a-half years, and then was released to face state charges, for which he received an additional sentence of nine more years. Before he could go back to jail, he jumped bail and moved to Florida to continue his peculations, but when the authorities caught up with him, he fled to Texas where he was arrested and deported to Italy.
In Rome, he became an English translator, and Benito Mussolini offered him a position as the Rio de Janeiro branch manager of Italy's new airline, Ala Littoria. After more typical Ponzi manipulations at the airline, he was jobless, penniless and died in the charity ward in a Rio de Janeiro hospital in 1949 at age 67.
The remarkable aspect of Bernard Madoff's $50 billion fraud was his years of brilliance and elegance. He joined America's toniest country clubs, and when Madoff in his dinner jacket and Mrs. Madoff, bejeweled in her expensive gown, entered the club dining room, members were flattered with a smile or wave.
When Madoff was chairman of the board of Nasdaq, he earned the respect of the Wall Street community for his intelligence and administrative skill and he managed a successful, well-regarded brokerage firm.
Did something flip or was Madoff a thief in his guts? He continued his apparently selfless and honorable career and participated in numerous charitable and philanthropic endeavors, only to rob them and many others when his Ponzi scheme exploded. The tragedy becomes even more shocking when elderly individuals thought that they were purchasing a life retirement, only to find their dreams suddenly evaporate.
To the sophisticated and financially savvy who kept investing billions with Madoff, knowingly or unknowingly, when market conditions never justified the baseless high return on their investments, the only words are their blind and senseless greed.
Psychiatrists will write thousands of words trying to analyze and diagnose Madoff's warped psyche, including how an investor offered Madoff $10 million to invest several days before the time he knew that he was going to confess to his sons. Madoff told him to "wire the money to my account at JP Morgan Chase and I will place you in a new fund commencing Jan. 1, 2009," which he did.
The pity of it all is that most Ponzis are intelligent, thoughtful and could be successful in legitimate business endeavors.
A word to the wise, "If it sounds too good, it may be no good."
Eli Mason, CPA, is a past president of the New York State Society of CPAs, a past chairman of the New York State Board for Public Accountancy, and a past vice president of the American Institute of CPAs.
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