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The trustee recovering money for investors who lost billions of dollars in jailed financier Bernard Madoff's fraud on Friday filed civil racketeering charges against an Austrian banker and 55 other defendants, demanding they give up nearly $20 billion and accusing the banker of being Madoff's "criminal soul mate."
Court-appointed trustee Irving Picard used tough language to portray a 23-year relationship between banker Sonja Kohn and Madoff, saying she "masterminded a vast illegal scheme" as she and others engaged in money laundering, mail and wire fraud, and financial institution fraud in support of the Madoff's scheme. He also accused her of accepting at least $62 million in secret kickbacks from Madoff for soliciting investors for the fraud.
Picard also announced Friday that he reached settlements with a number of charities and nonprofit organizations to recover more than $80 million and resolve civil claims against charities that withdrew more money than they deposited in accounts with Madoff.
Picard filed a lawsuit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan against members of what he labeled the "Medici Enterprise," which he said included the largest banks in Austria and Italy. A message for comment sent to a Kohn spokeswoman was not immediately returned.
"In Sonja Kohn, Madoff found a criminal soul mate, whose greed and dishonest inventiveness equaled his own," Picard said as he asked for $19.6 billion in damages.
The lawsuit, one of dozens Picard has filed prior to a Saturday deadline to commence litigation before the two-year anniversary of Madoff's arrest, said the illegal scheme that began around 1985 continues today.
"Although the illegal scheme is distinct from Madoff's Ponzi scheme, they are symbiotic, and have thrived off of each other," the lawsuit said.
Timothy Pfeifer, Picard's court-appointed counsel, said Kohn used multiple names and guises in creating an "international network of spurious investment entities and masterminding an illegal scheme not only to support the Madoff fraud, but also to enrich herself, her family and the largest banks in Austria and Italy."
Charged in the complaint along with Kohn, the principal shareholder of Bank Medici, were six members of her family, along with various trusts and companies in New York, Austria, Italy, Gibraltar and elsewhere. Those companies included UniCredit and Bank Austria.
Picard alleged in the civil complaint that Kohn channeled more than $9 billion into Madoff's Ponzi scheme while she and her family siphoned at least $62 million from Madoff's accounts into their private accounts. He charges she used an elaborate network of sham entities in New York and elsewhere that existed solely to receive secret kickbacks from Madoff.
"The total amount lost in the Ponzi scheme is approximately $19.6 billion, making these actors arguably the single most critical building block — the 'sine qua non' — of the Ponzi scheme," Pfeifer said.
Pfeifer said Kohn demonstrated her "intimate knowledge of Madoff's fraud" by acting suspiciously in the days and weeks before Madoff's December 2008 arrest.
He said she and her family used a network of trusts and nominee companies to launder the stolen proceeds of her scheme and to conceal it.
Picard said Madoff kept records of the accounts for which he secretly paid Kohn and appears to have tried to destroy them before he confessed the fraud to his sons hours before his arrest.
He said Kohn solicited at least 30 direct accounts for Madoff.
"To potential investors, Kohn held herself out as a close friend of Madoff and intimated that this relationship would yield special returns for investors she referred," said David J. Sheehan, one of Picard's lawyers.
Sheehan said Kohn began the scheme almost immediately after meeting Madoff. He said the scheme was a secret even within Madoff's private investment business. He added that Kohn took calculated measures to distance herself and her family from the fraud.
The lawsuit said the fraud could not have lasted as long as it did without Kohn's help. "No Ponzi scheme can survive without a constant influx of fresh capital, and the illegal scheme provided a flood of cash for Madoff," the lawsuit said.
Regarding the settlement with charities, Picard said he is pleased that some nonprofit organizations came forward to negotiate.
"Through these settlements, these admirable groups can continue with their good works and social programs. By settling, these charities remove the uncertainty generated by either potential claims or litigation, and, importantly, their donors can continue to contribute with confidence to their favorite charities," he said.