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By David Levy


The Montréal Review, October 2012



Jeff Prosserman's film Chasing Madoff (2011) concludes with a scene of dozens more like hundreds of fraud investigators, members of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, gathered in the ballroom of a Las Vegas hotel. They are there to honour Harry Marcopoulos for his tireless and frustrating decade-long effort to expose Bernie Madoff's multi-billion-dollar ponzi scheme. The numbers impress. The association claims to be the world's largest anti-fraud organization and premier provider of anti-fraud training and education.

Is fraud so widespread that it readily supports this army of bunko shamuses and their families, the rule rather than the exception? If so doesn't this make Bernie rather ordinary, only another crook, even if a very big one?

Why did the SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission, choose year after year after year to ignore Harry's findings? Why did Forbes and  The Wall Street Journal kill the stories? Why among the three-hundred firms involved in the Madoff scheme that devastated charities and individuals and investors big and small were there no more than a dozen or so arrests? 

These are questions the film poses but makes little attempt to answer, choosing to maintain the focus on Bernie and Harry, the handful of Harry's loyal and devoted associates, and a few Madoff victims.

Bernie Madoff's fifty billion dollar ponzi was all along hiding in plain sight, nothing subtle about it. Over the better part of a decade Harry had made every effort to alert the SEC and the financial press to the fraud with no success. Harry's victory when it arrived came after the fact. Bernie Madoff was done in, we learn, not by Harry's determined sleuthing, but by the sub-prime market crash of 2008 which dried up the sources of new gelt, a ponzi's life blood. 

If this  had been a feature, Tom Hanks might have been cast as Harry. Here Harry plays himself.  We see Harry claiming that the SEC was "systemically incompetent". But the problem seems more serious, having to do with the apparent inability of institutions and organizations, from Penn State to the Vatican, to take down malefactors within their ranks. 

Is it simply a question of whose interests may or may not be served by the revelation of some individual's pernicious conduct? Why did stock marrket-wise Bernie Madoff do this when he most probably could have achieved great financial success playing it straight?

Jeff Prosserman conceded when we spoke that sure the film definitely asks more questions than it answers. In any piece of media one is unable, he said, to supply answers to all the questions it may raise about a matter like stock market fraud. Why was Maddoff able to get away with it for so long? It's always easier, Jeff said, to look the other way. Madoff was very good at running a franchise in which everyone was getting paid. A lot of people were making big commissions. This kept the fraud going. There are of course legal questions. But a filmmaker needs to be careful not to cross that line. 

Fraud, as we well know, is not an uncommon phenomenon. Among the examples Jeff's research uncovered that didn't make it into the film concerned wire transfers. These days one is able to wire money across jurisdictions. Once the money leaves one jurisdiction and enters another...

But that seems to me to be bad guys doing what bad guys do. The more interesting issue concerns the supposed watchdog SEC. SEC staffers just sat there and listened to the excoriation from members of a congressional committee, saying virtually nothing in their own defence. None seemed particularly upset. Resignations soon followed and that essentially was it. Among the other scenes we do not see are the counselling sessions SEC staff likely engaged in with lawyers, the details of the resignation deals, etc. One can only assume this will all happen again, that it may in one form or another be happening at this very moment.

Jeff thinks it's inevitable. Look, he said, the SEC gets thousands of these filings annually. It is just physically impossible to pursue each and every one.

Maybe the SEC was not set up to do what it was set up to do. On the other hand, such, as someone pointed out, is Wall Street, a place where the sharks dine regularly on the minnows.

What about Harry wondering if he might wind up the victim of a double-tapping -- two shots to the head?  He acquires a piece and takes assault rifle target practice. He was after all familiar with at least one case of a whistleblower who had been severely beaten, left for dead, and concluded rightly or wrongly that anyone prepared to conduct a fraud of those dimensions would be capable of anything.

These days, said Jeff, the powerful media corporations seem less interested in investigative reporting than in Kim Kardashian stories. After he got nowhere with the SEC, Harry took the story around to all the big media organizations, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The New York Times and got no takers. In that situation fearing for your life was probably a reasonable reaction. Maybe not that hard  to understand why The New York Times was so dismissive of this wonderful little movie.

Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo "Charles" Ponzi learned the elements of the ponzi trade in Montreal. Arriving in the city from Boston in 1907 he quickly found his way to the Banco Zarossi, in the city's financial district, where he was employed as an assistant teller by the bank's founder Luigi Zarossi. Bad times encouraged Zarossi to begin financing the banco's generous interest payments out of money deposited in new accounts. It was not a scheme with legs. The bank soon failed and Zarossi took off for Mexico with what was left of the assets. Ponzi hung around for a time, looking after Zarossi's abandoned family. The kindness led to money  problems, a forged cheque and three years in the St-Vincente-de-Paul Penitentiary. In his letters from the prison Ponzi told his mother he was a special assistant to the prison warden. Upon his release in 1911 Ponzi returned to the United States.


David Levy is an editor at The Montreal Review and author of "Stalin's Man in Canada: Fred Rose and Soviet Espionage" (Enigma Books, 2011)


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