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SEC Internal Review Cites Multiple Failures on Madoff

SEC Internal Review Cites Multiple Failures on Madoff

By Janet Morrissey, Courtesy of TIME

Bernard Madoff arrives at federal court in New York, Thursday, March 12, 2009.
Mary Altaffer / AP

A long-awaited report from the Inspector General at the Securities and Exchange Commission concludes the SEC received six "substantive" complaints between June 1992 and December 2008 that could have uncovered disgraced financier Bernie Madoff‘s Ponzi scheme as far back as 1992 if it had "properly examined or investigated" Madoff’s trading practices.

In a 450-page report, released Wednesday, the report outlines a series of fumbles, where SEC staff either failed to follow up on complaints, wrongly accepted Madoff’s confusing and inconsistent answers to questions or, in some cases, involved junior staff who didn’t understand options trading and Ponzi schemes.

"Despite three examinations and two investigations being conducted, a thorough and competent investigation or examination was never performed," the report said.

The report said at least six complaints raised questions about Madoff’s trading practices, with some even suggesting a Ponzi scheme was involved. They questioned "Madoff’s incredible and highly unusual fills for equity trades, his mispresentation of his options trading and his unusually consistent, non-volatile returns over several years," and how Madoff’s alleged strategy and purported returns could not be duplicated by anyone else and had "no correlation to the overall equity markets in over 10 years." One tipster even nudged the SEC that "it may be of interest to you that Mr. Madoff keeps two sets of records — the most interesting of which is always on his person."

Yet, SEC staff failed to adequately follow up or seek third-party verifications on the trades, the report said. In many cases, the report said, "an inexperienced examination team" was assigned the investigation, many of whom were not familiar with trading practices and simply accepted Madoff’s explanation that he used his "gut feel" to time the market based on "his observations of the trading room." According to the report, examiners stated "there was no training" and that "this was a trial by fire kind of job." It also stated that examination team was "composed entirely of attorneys, who … did not have much experience in equity and options trading’ but ‘rather, their experience was in general litigation.’" (See pictures of a Madoff family album.)

"The result was a missed opportunity to uncover Madoff’s Ponzi scheme 16 years before Madoff confessed," the report said. "The SEC had sufficient information to inquire further and investigate Madoff for a Ponzi scheme back in 1992."

Harry Markopolos was among those who made repeated complaints to the SEC raising detailed red flags about Madoff’s operations. However, the report found that a branch chief had taken an "instant dislike" for Markopolos and declined to even pick up the "several inch thick file folder on Madoff that Markopolos offered." (See pictures of the demise of Bernard Madoff.)

Bernie MadoffIf the SEC had even consulted third parties, such as the Depository Trust Company (DTC, a special-purpose bank used by securities firms), to verify trades, the scandal would have been uncovered. For example, A January 2005 statement for one Madoff feeder fund account indicated it held $2.5 billion of S&P 100 equities on Jan. 31, 2005. However, DTC records show Madoff held less than $18 million worth of S&P 100 equities in his DTC account.

"When Madoff’s Ponzi scheme finally collapsed in 2008, an SEC Enforcement attorney testified that it took only ‘a few days’ and ‘a phone call to DTC’ to confirm that Madoff had not placed any trades with his investors’ funds," the report said.

Photos, courtesy of TIME. 

 


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