Madoff victims threaten legal action

Banks and investment firms blamed for introducing clients to '$50bn fraudster'

The victims of the world's biggest fraud are raising harsh questions about how Bernard Madoff was able to run his $50bn (£33bn) scam for so long without his staff, the authorities or his trading partners noticing.

A firestorm of legal action is gathering as individuals who lost their life savings and charities threatened to pursue the banks and investment firms that made their ill-fated introduction to Mr Madoff.

"If this were a traditional bank robbery, the eyewitness reports would say Mr Madoff walked out with billions of dollars as someone held the door open for him," said Jeffrey Zwerling, a lawyer representing some of the victims. "There is just no way that this happens without help of some kind."

The fall-out from Mr Madoff's arrest on Thursday is being felt around the world as banks, hedge funds, charitable organisations and thousands of well-to-do individuals tot up their losses. With each passing hour, new victims come to light, often in the tight-knit world of Jewish philanthropy, where Mr Madoff managed cash for numerous charities and for many of their biggest donors.

Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the US financial regulator, said last night that he was "gravely concerned by the apparent multiple failures over at least a decade" and that he had ordered "full and immediate review of the past allegations regarding Mr Madoff and his firm and the reasons they were not found credible".

More European finance houses confessed to losses, including Crédit Mutuel, France's second-largest bank. Regulators in Spain said 224 investment funds in the country had been exposed and faced losses of €107m (£97m). Among the celebrity victims revealed yesterday is Uma Thurman. Her husband, Arpad Busson, had £145m invested with Mr Madoff through his hedge fund. A charity connected to Steven Spielberg, the Hollywood director, was already among the list of victims. UK banks HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and Santander – owner of Abbey and Alliance & Leicester – have previously admitted exposure of more than $5bn between them.

The breathtaking fraud, committed over many years by one of Wall Street's best-respected investment managers, was uncovered only when Mr Madoff confessed to his two sons a week ago that he was "finished". In a criminal lawsuit filed the next day, public claims that Madoff Investment Securities was managing $17bn of client money and had made double-digit returns every year for almost a decade were "all just one big lie", he had told them.

Mr Madoff was running a giant pyramid scheme, paying out to existing investors with money coming in from new ones. But as the credit crunch began to bite, investment dwindled and there was a surge in requests to cash out. It proved to be his undoing.

Lawyers said the investment managers who recommended that their clients invest with Mr Madoff should have investigated his methods, which he had shrouded in mystery. They pointed to red flags going back as far as 1999, when Harry Markopolos, a securities industry executive, urged the SEC to investigate Madoff Investment Securities. Last year, investigators hired by potential investors urged them not to invest because they were suspicious.

The New York Law School – which fears losing $3m of its endowment fund – launched a lawsuit against one of its financial managers, Ascot Partners, Ascot's boss, Ezra Merkin, and the auditor, BDO Seidman. The defendants "recklessly or with gross negligence caused and permitted $1.8bn, virtually the entire investment capital of Ascot" to be handed over to Mr Madoff, according to the suit. Separately, Yeshiva University said it was considering its options after it lost about $110m.

Mr Madoff is due in court today for a bail hearing. He was released on a $10bn bond last week but has failed to find the required three co-guarantors. Meanwhile, details are emerging of the two separate sets of books he kept: ones showing the real losses, the other detailing the fictitious trading and profits, which he would mail to investors.

Mr Madoff has told the FBI he acted alone. His sons, Andrew and Mark, work in a different part of the business and the Massachusetts Secretary of State, William Galvin, did not suggest his brother Peter was involved.

The victim: A charity devoted to the poor

As well as the super-rich circling Mr Madoff in his playgrounds of Palm Beach, Florida, and Long Island, New York, there are scores of philanthropic victims of his record-breaking fraud, the JEHT Foundation among them. Since it was formed in 2000, it has given away $62m to fund research, to lobby for progressive reforms, and to prop up projects in some of the most deprived areas of the US. It harnessed the fortune of the late real estate mogul Norman Levy, but the family's money was invested with Mr Madoff, and is probably now gone.

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