Magazine article The Spectator

A Bland Villain

Magazine article The Spectator

A Bland Villain

Article excerpt


by Erin Arvidlund

Penguin, £9.99, pp. 320,

ISBN 9780141045467

£7.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655


by Adam LeBor

Weidenfeld, £18.99, pp. 280,

ISBN 9780297859192

£15.19 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

I've always thought of fraud as a relatively attractive form of crime - not, of course, in the sense that I daydream of committing it, but in the sense that it involves intelligence, imagination and nerve, rather than violence and damage.

Leaving aside the matter of moral conscience, a really smart fraudster has to combine the confidence of an actor with the sleight of hand of a magician and the technical skills of an accountant or a computer geek. You have to be brave enough to look your pursuers in the eye and brazen it out to the last, even if you know the game is up. And when the handcuffs finally click, you have to reveal with a last flash of bravado the dazzling intricacies of how you did it, so that no one can do it again but someone can make a decent caper movie.

On all those counts, Bernie Madoff is a dismal disappointment, despite the world-record scale of his crime. He was neither a risk-addicted extrovert nor an ardent womaniser nor an obvious bounder - unlike, say, the bogbrushmoustached Texan-born financier Sir Alan Stanford, who seems to have been all three and who now awaits trial for his own alleged multi-billion scam. Instead, Madoff was a bland, tanned septuagenarian Jewish socialite in New York and Palm Beach, whose well-heeled but unflamboyant lifestyle makes dull material for a biographer, even one as diligent as Erin Arvidlund. Attempts to uncover a wilder streak in Madoff's youth - he once drove too fast down a narrow, snowbound city street, for instance - just don't do the trick.

But perhaps it was sheer blandness that enabled him to get away with it all for so long.

As an investigative reporter, Arvidlund first tried to expose him as far back as 2001, when Madoff was still regarded by everyone, including the then chairman of the US Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), as a wise owl of the markets and a trusted custodian of wealth, as well as a noted philanthropist in his own right.

That favourable view prevailed time and again over warnings from the likes of Arvidlund and Harry Markopoulos, a Boston accountant who spotted the impossibility of Madoff's super-consistent investment performance and repeatedly urged the SEC to investigate. …

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