In Plain Sight

By Rumbi Petrozzello, CPA/CFF, CFE
2017 Vice-President – Central Virginia Chapter ACFE

Recently, I was listening to one my favorite podcasts, Radiolab, and they were discussing a series on Audible called “Ponzi Supernova”. Reporter Steve Fishman hounded infamous Ponzi schemer, Bernie Madoff, for several years. One day, Bernie called Steve, collect, and thus began the conversations between Madoff and Fishman that makes this telling of the Madoff Ponzi scheme like none other.

The tale is certainly compelling (how can a story of the largest known Ponzi scheme not be fascinating) and hearing Bernie Madoff talking about what he did and hearing what he says motivated him makes this series something I listened to from beginning to end, almost without taking a break. Through it all, as had happened just about every time I read or heard about Madoff, I was amazed that he was able to perpetrate his fraud for as long as he did, which, depending on who you believe, started somewhere between the early 1960s and 1992 (even Madoff gives different dates for when he started). This is no surprise. All too often, when fraudsters are caught, they try to minimize the extent of their wrongdoing. If they know that you’ve found $1,000, they’ll tell you that $1,000 was all they took. If you go on to find more, then the story will change a little to include what you’ve found. It’s very rare that a fraudster will confess to the full extent of her crime at the first go around (or even at the second or third).

As I listened to the series, something became very apparent. Often when people discuss the Madoff Ponzi scheme, one tends to get the feeling that, for decades, he took money from new investors to pay off old investors and carried on his multi-billion-dollar scheme without a single soul blowing the whistle on him. But that’s not the case. In a 477-page report from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Office of Investigations (OIG) entitled “Investigation of Failure of the SEC to Uncover Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme – Public Version”, between June 1992 and December 2008, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) received “six substantive complaints” regarding Madoff’s company and some of these complaints were submitted more than once.

One complaint mentioned in the report was received three times, with versions submitted in 2000, 2001 and 2005; the 2005 version was even entitled “The World’s Largest Hedge Fund is a Fraud”. This complaint series was submitted by Madoff’s most well-known nemesis, the whistleblower, Harry Markopolos. But, there were at least five other individuals who shared their concerns and suspicions about Madoff with the SEC. Three of these specifically used the words “Ponzi scheme”, including the first complaint, in 1992. Based on these complaints, the SEC conducted two investigations and three examinations and, even though the complaints explicitly stated that they suspected that Madoff Investments was a Ponzi scheme, none of the investigations or examinations concluded that Madoff was operating a Ponzi scheme. To add to this, the SEC was aware of two articles that questioned Madoff’s returns. Over the years, several investment companies performed their own due diligence and decided that Madoff’s company did not make sense and they believed that investing with Madoff would be a violation of their fiduciary duty to their clients. Despite all of this, none of these investigations or exams contained a finding of fraud.

Whether you’re a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) or a CPA, Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF), the work that you do is governed by a set of professional standards that help establish a performance baseline. This begins with competence. This means that those taking on an assignment should be able to complete the assignment successfully. This does not necessarily mean that whoever is leading the job needs to know how to do everything. It does mean that they should ensure that there is the right skill set working on the job, even if it means the use of referrals or consultation. Too many times, while reading the OIG report, the reader confronts the mention of a lack of experience. Listening to Ponzi Supernova, I learnt that at least one examiner was only three weeks out of school. The OIG report stated that, for one examination, because the person leading the investigation had no knowledge of how to investigate a suspected Ponzi scheme, they decided to just not investigate that claim; they decided instead to investigate what they knew, and that was front running (though even that investigation was carried out poorly).

Another ACFE professional standard is that of due professional care. Due professional care “requires diligence, critical analysis and professional skepticism”. It also means that any conclusion that a CFE reaches, must be supported by evidence that is relevant, sufficient and competent. Several times during the various investigations and examinations, SEC staff would ask Madoff or his employees questions and then accept any answers they were given without seeking any third-party confirmation. Sometimes, even when third-party confirmation was sought, the questions asked of those third parties were not the correct ones. Madoff himself tells the story of how, in 2006, Madoff testified that he settled trades for his advisory clients through his personal Depository Trust Company (DTC) account and he even gave the SEC his DTC account information. At this point Madoff was sure that, once the SEC checked this out, his fraud would be discovered. Instead, the SEC merely asked the DTC if Madoff had an account, and nothing more. Had they asked about account activity, they would have then discovered that Madoff’s account, even though it existed, did not trade anywhere near the volume purported by his statements. This brings up other aspects of due professional care; adequate planning and supervision. With proper supervision, the less experienced can be trained not just to ask questions, but to ask, and get adequate answers to, the correct questions. The person reviewing their work would be able to ask them, “did the answer that you got from the DTC answer the question that we are asking? Can we now confirm not that Madoff has an account with the DTC but, instead, that he is trading billions of dollars through these accounts?”

Time and time again, in the OIG report, the SEC stated that they did not have experienced and adequate staff for their examinations and investigations of Madoff. This was an excuse that was used to explain why, for instance, they did not send out requests for third-party confirmations, even after drafting them. In one case, staff stated that they did not send out a request to the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) because it would have been too time-consuming to review the data received. Adequate planning would have made sure that there was sufficient, qualified staffing to review the data. Adequate supervision would have ensured that this excuse for not sending out the request was squashed. However, it is not the case that no third-party confirmation requests were sent out. Some were and some of those sent out received responses. Responses were received from the NASD and other financial institutions These entities all claimed that there was no activity with Madoff on the dates that the examiners were asking about. Even with that information, there was no follow-up on the part of the examiners. At every turn, there seemed to be a lot of trust and just about no verification. This is even more surprising when you hear that the examiners would write notes about how Madoff was obviously lying and how many people had reported to the SEC that Madoff was running a dishonest business. Even with so much distrust, and so many whistleblowers, it turned out that those sent to shine a light on Madoff’s operations all seemed to be looking in all the wrong places.

Part of planning an investigation is determining what is being investigated and how the investigation is going to be executed. A very important part of the process is determining, beforehand, what will be done with negative results. When third-party responses were received and they all stated Madoff had not done business with them as claimed, the responses appear to have been filed and no further action taken. When responses were not received, the SEC did not follow up to find out why nothing had been returned. They likely would have found that the institution had not responded to the inquiry because there was nothing to respond about. There does not appear to have been a defined protocol on what to do when the answer to the question, “did this happen” was “No.”

I urge you to, at the very least, read the executive summary of the OIG report. For me at least, what Madoff could get away with, time and time again, with each subsequent SEC examination or investigation, is jaw-dropping. The fact that 1) several whistleblowers shared their concerns and even accompanied them with a great deal of detail and 2) that articles were written and yet, 3) those with access to the information that could prove, with very little effort, that Madoff was not doing what he claimed to be doing, found nothing of concern is something I struggle to comprehend. This whole sad history does underline the importance of referring to, and abiding by, our professional standards, to minimize the risk of missing a fraud like this one. Most importantly, it reduces the risk that someone might get an aneurism trying to wrap their mind around how, even when so many others could see that something was amiss, the watchdog missed it all!

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