The trustee liquidating Bernard L. Madoff’s investment firm has filed more than $50 billion in so-called clawback suits to compensate victims of the con man’s fraud since his 2008 arrest for masterminding the biggest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history.
Irving Picard filed hundreds of lawsuits against banks, feeder funds, investors and others alleged to have profited from Madoff’s decades-long crime. Among those sued was Madoff’s son Mark, who hanged himself in his Manhattan apartment Dec. 11, the two-year anniversary of his father’s arrest.
The deadline for Picard to file claims expired that day. So far, he has recovered about $2.5 billion. Last week, he sued Bank Medici AG and its founder, Sonja Kohn, as well as Bank Austria, UniCredit SpA and dozens of other parties. He is seeking $19.6 billion from them, which could potentially triple to $58.8 billion under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. It’s the biggest claim filed by Picard.
Kohn, 62, whom Picard called Madoff’s “criminal soul mate,” used a relationship with the financier that began in 1985 to help build the Vienna-based bank, feeding more than $9.1 billion of investor money into his company, Picard said in a complaint last week in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York.
“The illegal scheme enriched Kohn, her family, and scores of other individuals and entities, including the largest banks in Austria and Italy, at the expense of the BLMIS estate and on the backs of Madoff’s victims,” Picard said in court papers, referring to Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC.
In the 153-page complaint against Kohn, Picard claimed she told investors she was very close to Madoff and could deliver higher returns on investments made through his firm. Instead, Madoff was secretly paying Kohn, who knew Madoff was running a fraud, to funnel money into the Ponzi scheme, Picard said.
According to the trustee, Kohn ran her own complex scheme centered on Bank Medici, parts of which overlapped with Madoff’s own fraudulent enterprise, delivering $9.1 billion into the Ponzi scheme. They funneled $4 billion of the total through feeder funds including Primeo Fund, Thema International, Herald Fund Alpha Prime Fund, Senator Fund and Herald (Lux), which placed all of their investors’ money with Madoff, according to Picard.
Shortly before Madoff confessed, in December 2008, Kohn withdrew $536 million from Madoff’s firm, Picard said, and took steps to hide her connection to the money manager.
Bank Medici operated as a branch of Bank Austria, which administered its accounts, according to Picard. In return, Bank Austria, which is named as a defendant, was paid at least $31 million.
Bank Medici renamed itself 20.20 Medici AG after Austria’s Financial Markets Authority withdrew the company’s banking license because of insufficient capital in May 2009.
Andreas Theiss, a lawyer for Kohn and Medici in Vienna, said in an interview that, “Kohn and Medici are victims of Madoff. What is being claimed in the lawsuit has nothing to do with reality.”
UniCredit said in an e-mailed statement on behalf of itself, Bank Austria and its fund management unit Pioneer Global Asset Management SpA, which is also a defendant, that they will fight the lawsuit.
Their “attorneys are reviewing the matter and we will manage this through the normal course legal process,” the bank said in a statement.
Former UniCredit Chief Executive Officer Alessandro Profumo, who was ousted from the Italian lender in September, is also named as a defendant in the suit.
“The allegations are completely unfounded and will be defended vigorously,” said a spokesman for Profumo.
Madoff, 72, who pleaded guilty, is serving a 150-year sentence in federal prison in North Carolina.
At the time of his arrest, his financial statements reflected 4,900 accounts with $65 billion in nonexistent balances. Investors lost about $20 billion in principal.
HSBC Holdings Plc was sued this month for $9 billion by Picard, who alleged Europe’s biggest lender enabled Madoff’s fraud. Picard previously sued JPMorgan Chase & Co. for $6.4 billion over claims the New York-based bank aided and abetted the fraud.
Earlier last week, Citigroup Inc.’s Citibank, Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch unit and five other banks were sued by the trustee to recover more than $1 billion.
The banks, which include Natixis SA, Fortis Prime Fund Solutions Bank (Ireland) Ltd., ABN Amro Bank NV, Nomura Bank International Plc. and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA, received money through Madoff feeder funds when they knew, or should have known, that Madoff’s investments were a fraud, Picard said in a statement at the time.
Picard also sued UBS AG and Tremont Group Holdings Inc., the hedge-fund firm owned by Oppenheimer Acquisition Corp., over claims they profited from Madoff’s fraud. Picard, along with the liquidators of Madoff’s U.K. operation, sued the unit’s former directors in a London court seeking at least $80 million.
All of the banks and firms have denied wrongdoing and vowed to fight the lawsuits.
Also last week, one of Bernard Madoff’s first clients, along with 19 family members, settled potential lawsuits by agreeing to forfeit $625 million in profits from the con man’s investment fraud.
Carl Shapiro, a Boston-based philanthropist, held an account with Madoff’s firm beginning in 1961. His son-in-law, Robert Jaffe, is the former vice president of Cohmad Securities Corp., a feeder fund that shared offices with Madoff’s firm.
Picard also sued the owners of the New York Mets baseball team for the return of profits earned from their Madoff investments. The defendants and Picard confirmed they are in settlement talks.
On Dec. 10, Picard said in a statement that he sued Frank Avellino and Michael Bienes, two certified public accountants, as well as family members, for more than $900 million, seeking money they withdrew from Madoff’s firm. Picard called Avellino and Bienes “among the earliest enablers” of Madoff.
Picard announced Dec. 10 that he had settled for more than $80 million against a group of charities and non-profit organizations that profited from their Madoff investments.
One settlement announced, with Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America Inc., will add $45 million for distribution to Madoff victims, Picard said in the statement.
Hadassah’s former finance chief, Sheryl Weinstein, wrote in a book published last year about an affair she had with Madoff.
The case is Picard v. Kohn, 10-5411, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).