Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

The Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal

For more than 40 years, Bernie Madoff was one of the most prominent figures in the US financial services industry.   His trading firm, Madoff Securities, was founded in 1960 and due to its early adoption of then cutting-edge technology quickly became one of the major market makers in the business. The firm’s technology that it participated in creating later became the NASDAQ trading exchange. Apart from its brokerage business, Madoff Securities also offered investment management and advisory services to many prominent clients. These included banks such as Banco Santander, HSBC, RBS, and BNP Paribas; hedge funds; university endowments; charitable organizations; and famous individuals such as Steven Spielberg, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sandy Koufax, and Elie Wiesel.

Madoff himself was very well-known in the securities industry. He was on the board of directors of the Securities Industry Association (SIA), the predecessor to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), and served as chairman of SIA’s trading committee. He was also active in the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), the self-regulatory organization (SRO) for brokerage firms and exchange markets that predated the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), and served on the board of directors of the SRO, for a period even as its chairman

This last professional designation for Madoff seems ironic now. In reality, Madoff’s investment management business was revealed in December 2008 as a $65 billion Ponzi scheme, the largest financial fraud in US history. This massive fraud was carried out by Madoff and a close group of associates right alongside his legitimate brokerage business and taking full advantage of his huge network of investors and prominent reputation in the industry. In the scheme, trades and returns were completely fabricated and investor redemptions were funded by new infusions from individuals that Madoff aggressively pursued, touting his performance.

Despite numerous SEC investigations of various areas of Madoff’s business, and several outside analysts publicizing urgent and detailed concerns about the business and its purported performance claims which could not be replicated for authentication purposes, this scheme continued unmitigated for at least 15 years, per Madoff’s admission. It may have gone on for as long as 30 years, back to the very beginning of the investment advisory arm of Madoff Securities.

Madoff struggled to keep the fraud going as the global financial crisis caused the markets to contract throughout the fall of 2008, and investors sought redemption. Still, he managed to stay afloat until December 2008, when his sons, Mark and Andrew, confronted him about bonuses he wished to pay amid the mounting investor redemptions. Madoff confessed to his sons that the investment management business was a fraud, and his sons then reported him to law enforcement. In the subsequent months the shocking scale of his fraud and the losses it caused became the subject of public fascination.

For interesting insights on the fraud and scandal surrounding Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme to defraud investors, check out these videos:

  • The Madoff Affair – An episode of the PBS documentary program Frontline from May 2009, when the complete scope of the scandal was still being discovered, which aims to tell the story of the fraud from the beginning and question how it was able to go on for so long.


  • The Man Who Knew – This March 2009 60 Minutes segment features Steve Kroft interviewing Harry Markopolos of Rampart Investment Management. Markopolos was a vocal critic and doubter of Madoff’s claimed investment returns. He attempted to alert the SEC on a number of occasions to the fraudulent practices he believed he had discovered in his study of the alleged performance of Madoff Securities, but he was ignored or his claims were not thoroughly investigated.


  • Ripped Off: Madoff and the Scamming of America – This is an April 2009 which looks at Bernie Madoff’s fraud in comparison with other Ponzi Schemes of the prior hundred years. With this study, the investigation assesses the magnitude of the damage Madoff’s scheme caused and places it in context of the global financial crisis which was beginning to deepen at the end of 2008.


  • The Hunt for Madoff’s Money– This February 2009 segment from the ABC news program 20/20 asks where the money that Madoff defrauded from his investors went, other than fund withdrawals by others’ withdrawals. The investigation looks at the luxury lifestyle and properties of Madoff and his family members and associates that were enriched by his fraudulent investment management scheme.



  • Madoff Victims on Guilty Plea – In this March 2009 report from CBS News, nine people who lost their investments in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme speak to Katie Couric about their reactions to the exposure of the massive fraud and his guilty plea that resulted in him being sentenced to 150 years in prison without standing trial.