BUTNER, N.C. — Bernard L. Madoff said he never thought the collapse of his Ponzi scheme would cause the sort of destruction that has befallen his family. In his first interview for publication since his arrest in December 2008, Mr. Madoff — looking noticeably thinner and rumpled in khaki prison garb — maintained that family members knew nothing about his crimes.
But during a private two-hour interview in a visitor room here on Tuesday, and in earlier e-mail exchanges, he asserted that unidentified banks and hedge funds were somehow “complicit” in his elaborate fraud, an about-face from earlier claims that he was the only person involved. www.wdalaw.com Mr. Madoff, who is serving a 150-year sentence, seemed frail and a bit agitated compared with the stoic calm he maintained before his incarceration in 2009, perhaps burdened by sadness over the suicide of his son Mark in December.
Besides that loss, his family also has faced stacks of lawsuits, the potential forfeiture of most of their assets, and relentless public suspicion and enmity that cut Mr. Madoff and his wife Ruth off from their children.
In many ways, however, Mr. Madoff seemed unchanged. He spoke with great intensity and fluency about his dealings with various banks and hedge funds, pointing to their “willful blindness” and their failure to examine discrepancies between his regulatory filings and other information available to them.
“They had to know,” Mr. Madoff said. “But the attitude was sort of, ‘If you’re doing something wrong, we don’t want to know.’ ”
While he acknowledged his guilt in the interview and said nothing could excuse his crimes, he focused his comments laserlike on the big investors and giant institutions he dealt with, not on the financial pain he caused thousands of his more modest investors. In an e-mail written on Jan. 13, he observed that many long-term clients made more in legitimate profits from him in the years before the fraud than they could have elsewhere. “I would have loved for them to not lose anything, but that was a risk they were well aware of by investing in the market,” he wrote.
Mr. Madoff said he was startled to learn about some of the e-mails and messages raising doubts about his results — now emerging in lawsuits — that bankers were passing around before his scheme collapsed.
“I’m reading more now about how suspicious they were than I ever realized at the time,” he said with a faint smile.
He did not assert that any specific bank or fund knew about or was an accomplice in his Ponzi scheme, which lasted at least 16 years and consumed about $20 billion in lost cash and almost $65 billion in paper wealth. Rather, he cited a failure to conduct normal scrutiny.
Both the interview and the e-mail correspondence were conducted as part of this reporter’s research for a coming book on the Madoff scandal, “The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust,” for publication this spring by Times Books, a division of Henry Holt & Company.
In the interview and e-mails, he also claimed he had been helping the court-appointed trustee who is seeking to recover lost billions on behalf of his swindled clients. In e-mails, Mr. Madoff said repeatedly that he provided useful information to Irving H. Picard, the trustee trying to recover assets for the fraud victims. He met with Mr. Picard’s team over four days last summer, he said. The e-mails were written in December and January, but he only recently agreed that they could be made public.
In prison, Mr. Madoff’s access to the outside world is both limited and monitored. All visitors must be approved by prison authorities, who also screen his limited collect calls and his incoming and outgoing e-mails and letters, though interviews with lawyers like Mr. Picard and his colleagues are less restricted and can be conducted in private. Asked about his cell, he described a room about 12 feet square with a big window looking out on the grounds; he said he had a roommate, the second since he arrived at the prison.
It was clear from the e-mails and interview here that Mr. Madoff closely followed news related to his case in December, the second anniversary of his arrest. He lashed out at what he called some of the “disgraceful” coverage of the suicide of his son Mark on Dec. 11.