WASHINGTON — The man who waged a decade-long campaign to alert regulators to problems in the operations of fallen money manager Bernard Madoff told Congress Wednesday that he had feared for his physical safety.
Harry Markopolos also assailed the Securities and Exchange Commission in his first appearance before lawmakers. The SEC failed to act despite receiving credible allegations of fraud from Markopolos about Madoff's operations over a decade.
Because of the agency's inaction, "I became fearful for the safety of my family," Markopolos said.
He told a House subcommittee hearing that "the SEC is ... captive to the industry it regulates and is afraid" to bring big cases against prominent individuals. The agency "roars like a lion and bites like a flea," Markopolos said.
Madoff, a prominent Wall Street figure, was arrested in December after allegedly confessing to bilking investors of more than $50 billion in what the authorities say was a giant Ponzi scheme, possibly the largest ever. His repeated warnings to SEC staff that Madoff was running a massive pyramid scheme have cast Markopolos as an unheeded prophet in the scandal.
"The SEC was never capable of catching Mr. Madoff. He could have gone to $100 billion" without being discovered, Markopolos testified at the hearing. "It took me about five minutes to figure out he was a fraud."
Markopolos, a securities industry executive and fraud investigator, brought his allegations to the SEC about improprieties in Madoff's business starting in 2000. He fruitlessly pursued the quest through this decade with agency staff from Boston to New York to Washington, but the regulators never acted.
Now thousands of victims who lost money investing in Madoff's fund, which was separate from his securities brokerage business, have been identified. Among them are ordinary people and Hollywood celebrities — as well as big hedge funds, international banks and charities in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Life savings have evaporated, foundations have been wiped out and at least one investor apparently was pushed to commit suicide.
And the SEC has been sustaining volleys of criticism from lawmakers and investor advocates over its failure to discover Madoff's alleged fraud, which could be the biggest Ponzi scheme ever, despite the credible allegations brought to it over years.
Markopolos said he determined there was no way Madoff could have been making the consistent returns he claimed using the trading strategy he touted to prospective investors.
Madoff, who was at one point chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market and sat on SEC advisory committees, was "one of the most powerful men on Wall Street and in a position to easily end our careers or worse," Markopolos said.
Calling the SEC "nonfunctional" and harmful to the reputation of the U.S. as a global financial leader, Markopolos recommended ways to revamp the agency, including replacing its senior staff and establishing a central office to receive complaints from whistleblowers.
Also due to testify before the House Financial Services subcommittee were five top SEC officials, including the agency's enforcement director Linda Thomsen, and the head of its inspections division Lori Richards.
In December, Christopher Cox, then the SEC chairman, pinned the blame on the agency's career staff for the failure over a decade to detect what Madoff was doing. He ordered the SEC's inspector general, H. David Kotz, to determine what went wrong. Kotz has expanded his inquiry to examine the operations of the divisions led by Thomsen, who has been the enforcement chief since mid-2005, and Richards, who has held that position since mid-1995.
Thomsen and Richards defended their actions at a Senate hearing last week over the SEC's failure to uncover Madoff's alleged fraud scheme. Members of the Senate Banking Committee were scarcely satisfied with explanations given by the two officials and by Stephen Luparello, the interim chief executive of the brokerage industry's self-policing organization.
That organization, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, was headed until December by Mary Schapiro, President Barack Obama's new SEC chief. Schapiro has said that because Madoff carried out the scheme through his investment business and FINRA was empowered to inspect only the brokerage operation, it wasn't possible for the organization to discover it.