NEW YORK (Reuters) –
Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison Monday for perpetrating Wall Street's biggest and most brazen investment fraud, the maximum punishment allowed for what the judge called “extraordinarily evil” crimes.
Cheers and applause came from the courtroom — filled with his fleeced investors — as the judge handed down the penalty, apparently unconvinced that Madoff had cooperated with investigators or told the full story.
Madoff, 71, stood passively with his hands clasped at his waist, showing no reaction when he heard the sentence that will send him to prison for the rest of his life.
The former nonexecutive chairman of the Nasdaq stock market has been jailed in a Manhattan cell since he pleaded guilty to 11 charges including securities fraud, money laundering and perjury in March.
“Here the message must be sent that Mr Madoff's crimes were extraordinarily evil,” U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin said. “The breach of trust was massive.
“I simply do not get the sense that Mr. Madoff has done all that he could or told all that he knows.”
The gray-haired money manager, dressed in his signature dark gray suit and tie, was escorted out of the courtroom by marshals but not handcuffed at any point.
It was not yet known where Madoff will serve his sentence for orchestrating what prosecutors described as a $65 billion worldwide fraud of small and wealthy investors, charities and financial institutions.
Chin pronounced the punishment after hearing emotional statements from nine of Madoff's victims, some of whom said they had lost their life savings, were forced to sell their homes, had to apply for government assistance to buy food, and feared an old age in poverty.
“I only hope that his prison sentence is long enough so that his jail cell will become his coffin,” said Michael Schwartz, 33, who said his family had been robbed of savings to be used to care for his mentally disabled brother.
Madoff sat passively throughout the hour-and-a-half hearing as his victims called him a “beast,” an “animal” and a “lowlife.” He apologized to his victims, at one point briefly turning in the direction of the 250 people gathered in the courtroom.
“I will live with this pain, with this torment, for the rest of my life,” he said in calm, measured tones, standing and buttoning his suit jacket. “I live in a tormented state knowing the pain and suffering I have created.”
His arrest last December came just as investors were suffering the worst financial crisis since the 1930s Great Depression. The case has triggered widespread criticism of U.S. securities regulators accused of missing numerous red flags about his asset management business.
While a much lower sentence would also have sent Madoff to prison for life, Chin said Madoff deserved the maximum, typically handed down to organized crime bosses.
“The fraud here was staggering,” the judge said.
None of the swindler's family came to court to see the drama. Madoff has made all of his court appearances in the last six months alone with his lawyers.
The judge said he had not received a single letter on Madoff's behalf, testifying to any good deeds or charitable works. “The absence of such support is telling,” Chin said.
Madoff's wife Ruth, 68, has not been charged with any crimes but has been vilified by defrauded investors, shunned by people she once knew well, and pursued by the New York press.
Breaking her long silence on the case, she said in a statement after the sentencing that she was “betrayed and confused” by her husband's scam.
“From the moment I learned from my husband that he had committed an enormous fraud, I have had two thoughts — first, that so many people who trusted him would be ruined financially and emotionally, and second, that my life with the man I have known for over 50 years was over,” she said.
FALL FROM GRACE
Madoff was arrested in December after his two sons told authorities he had confessed his massive scam to them. He admitted running a multibillion-dollar “Ponzi scheme” in which investors were paid returns from money paid by later investors.
Madoff's swindle was global, but many of his victims were in New York or Florida, where he had a mansion in the luxury seaside enclave of Palm Beach and recruited many of his victims.
Madoff has said he committed the fraud on his own. He has not named any accomplices, and the only other person charged is his outside accountant.
His brother, Peter, and his sons, Mark and Andrew, held executive positions in the brokerage unit of Madoff's firm. Their lawyers say they were not aware of or involved in the crooked asset management side.
Investigators do not know how much was stolen, according to court papers. Prosecutors say $170 billion flowed through the principal Madoff account over decades, and that weeks before the financier's December arrest the firm's statements showed a total of $65 billion in accounts.
The trustee winding down the Madoff firm has so far collected $1.2 billion to return to investors. Swindled investors fear they may never recover the millions some of them have lost.
Madoff and his wife have agreed to the sale of three of their luxury properties and other assets and valuables, according to court documents filed Friday. Proceeds from asset sales will be distributed to defrauded investors.
Ruth Madoff will be left with $2.5 million and have to look for a new home as she forfeits claim to some $80 million in assets.
Madoff told investors that he could offer no excuses for his behavior, saying he tried to undo his crimes but “the harder I tried, the deeper a hole I dug for myself.”
Investors said the apologies left them cold.
“How can he look people in the eye,” said George Nierenberg, 57. “There's something very pathological. He is still making excuses for himself.”
Madoff's lawyer said no decision had been made on whether to appeal the sentence. He had argued for a 12-year prison sentence, arguing that even with that, Madoff would likely be imprisoned for most or all of the rest of his life.
(Reporting by Grant McCool, Martha Graybow, Daniel Trotta, Mike Erman and Christine Kearney; editing by John Wallace)