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'Madoff' takes account of the biggest financial Ponzi scheme in history

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

AUTOMATED VOICE: You have a Global Tel Link collect call from...

BERNIE MADOFF: Bernard Madoff.

AUTOMATED VOICE: An inmate at a federal prison. This call is being recorded and is subject to monitoring. To hear the cost of this call, press 8 now. To accept this call, press 5 now.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

GROSS: In case you didn't catch the name, that was Bernie Madoff, the biggest financial swindler in American history. This was one of about 50 phone calls Madoff made to my guest, financial investigative journalist Richard Behar, while Madoff was in prison. He was serving a 150-year sentence for 11 felony charges, including securities and investment fraud, filing false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission and perjury. Madoff also sent Behar hundreds of emails and dozens of handwritten letters. We'll hear recorded excerpts of some of the interviews Behar conducted with Madoff.

You can't trust a fraudster and pathological liar to tell you the truth, and Behar didn't. His new book, "Madoff: The Final Word," is largely based on the interviews he conducted with Wall Street insiders, prosecutors, FBI agents and people who lost most or all of their money investing through Madoff's company, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, or BLMIS. The company had a legit side, but the other side was a Ponzi scheme, involving fake stock certificates that convinced buyers the stocks were actually purchased and profitable. $68 billion of assets investors thought they had disappeared overnight once the fraud was discovered. Tens of thousands of people lost the money they'd invested, in addition to the profits they were told they'd earned.

Those investors included family trusts, charities, colleges, pension funds, hedge funds, celebrities in the worlds of entertainment, sports, architecture and business, and individuals, like Behar's Aunt Adele. Madoff was arrested in 2008 and died in 2021 in a federal prison in Butner, N.C. He was 82. The story isn't over. There's still more than 100 legal battles surrounding Madoff's scam. Richard Behar is a contributing editor at Forbes Magazine and has worked for Time and Fortune. He's won Polk Awards, oversees Press Club Awards and a National Magazine Award. Richard Behar, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why are you interested in Bernie Madoff?

RICHARD BEHAR: Hi. OK.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BEHAR: Well, I've always been interested in investigative reporting and made a career out of it. I've done pieces on fraudsters from Wall Street, including a very lengthy feature - I think it was the only one - on Dennis Helliwell, who was the Ponzi king, in terms of length of the scam, before Bernie. Another interest I had in him was that I found out after his arrest that my dear Aunt Adele, who I was very close to - she was kind of a surrogate mom through my life. I grew up in foster care my whole childhood. She lost everything to Bernie. And I considered her very savvy as a financial person and very successful. And I just couldn't understand how she could have all her money with him.

GROSS: We'll hear more of that story a little bit later. I want you to describe the Ponzi scheme, how it worked, in easy-to-understand language, 'cause there's some complicated parts here, but you can boil it down to the essence with the fake documents.

BEHAR: Well, a Ponzi scheme is really one of the oldest frauds in human existence. It's essentially taking from Peter - robbing from Peter and paying Paul. An investor gives you money. You promise them lucrative returns. You get more money from someone else, and then you give money out to the first investor, and that goes on, in Bernie's case, for many decades.

GROSS: So you invest money in Mr. B's investment company. They buy you fake stocks. And then when you're supposed to be paid dividends or profits when you sell it, I've invested money, too, so you get the money I've invested as if it was your profits. So there's never a whole lot of money in the coffers.

BEHAR: Yes. But the more he can raise money from people and from funds and globally, which he did, the bigger the pot becomes, and really the easier it is to run and grow the Ponzi. This is...

GROSS: Until people start trying to sell at the same time.

BEHAR: Until people start trying to sell, and there's a run on Bernie and a financial crisis, as there was in 2008. A Ponzi is a zero-sum game - money in, money out, nothing invested. In Bernie's case, backdated trades are what investors were receiving in their monthly and quarterly statements.

GROSS: Let's back off a second. So one floor in the office where Bernie's firm was located - one floor was devoted to churning out these fake stocks, these fake investment papers. So you think that people should have noticed that these documents were fraudulent. So describe the difference between, like, a real trade statement and the fake ones that Madoff churned out.

BEHAR: First off, a real statement is something you could actually go online and look up at your broker and see. Bernie Madoff did not allow investors to go online and look up their accounts. Paper statements were sent that looked pretty archaic, like something out of the 1950s, frankly, and the returns were absolutely impossible. Investors were also not allowed to email with the 17th floor. There was no email. And if that doesn't set off alarm bells, what does?

GROSS: The reason perhaps they look so archaic was because they were created on very, very old obsolete computers.

BEHAR: The computers were obsolete and barely in existence elsewhere. They were IBM computers from the 1980s, kind of chugging along like old locomotives. And these computers were not even connected to the 18th and 19th floors, the so called legit end of the business, let alone to stock exchanges. They were just running on their own.

GROSS: Other signs that the documents were fraudulent included that some of them were dated on holidays when no bank transactions or stock transactions take place. There were misspellings. That should have been signs?

BEHAR: Trading on weekends, trading at times, yes, when the markets are closed - all of those should have been signs. But the biggest sign of all is those returns are impossible to be consistent year after year after year.

GROSS: There were, like, 50- to 20% returns. Like, that's incredible.

BEHAR: That's incredible.

GROSS: It was literally incredible - not believable, because it wasn't true.

BEHAR: Yeah, it absolutely is incredible. And that's pretty much what the average was, but his favorite investors could get as much as 600% in some cases.

GROSS: Six hundred?

BEHAR: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: Well, those are handsome gifts.

BEHAR: Not bad.

GROSS: And Madoff skimmed money from this Ponzi scheme for himself and his family?

BEHAR: He did, although remarkably, he wasn't the biggest gainer. His biggest investor, a man named Jeffry Picower, earned billions from the Ponzi scheme. It's hard to know how much Bernie and his family burned through, but it was certainly probably less than $500,000,000.

GROSS: So there's no evidence that Bernie Madoff ever really bought or sold any stocks from the investment adviser part of the company, the Ponzi scheme part of the company?

BEHAR: That's absolutely right, and Bernie's story was always that the scam only started in about 1992, but I was able to determine that it was actually a scam from the beginning, from within a year or two after he opened his office in 1960.

GROSS: Bernie Madoff had been chairman of the Nasdaq stock exchange, and he was considered a leader and an innovator in using automation, and that's pretty funny, considering the old computers that created the fake documents. Did being chairman of Nasdaq give him credibility, and how did he become chair? I mean, how did people not notice? How did he rise to such a high level when he was running this incredible international scam?

BEHAR: He did become chairman briefly, but people have to keep in mind that it's largely a titular title, which I don't think (laughter) the press realizes or has reported, frankly, but he did get involved in various committees. He talked his way there. Peter was the intelligent geek, who was the automator and new technology. So, yeah, it did give Bernie some cred, but at the same time, I interviewed some leading Wall Street people, some of them legends, like Ace Greenberg before he died, the former chair of Bear Stearns. And Ace said, in essence - and he's in the book - yeah, you know, I knew this was impossible; you know, we knew this was unattainable. We knew there was something wrong, and he steered people away from it but didn't tell regulators...

GROSS: No? Why not?

BEHAR: ...Didn't call prosecutors. There's sort of a code on Wall Street that you just go about your business, and you don't contact regulators, for fear that they'll start looking in your offices. You just don't want them around, and FBI agents have tried to change that mentality, with some success, since Bernie.

GROSS: You mentioned that, you know, Madoff is Jewish - was Jewish - and there were a lot of Jewish investors and Jewish-identified institutions that invested with him. And did that give other Jewish investors confidence, that he was Jewish, that there were a lot of Jewish investors? What are your thoughts about that?

BEHAR: Oh, absolutely. Ponzi schemes typically start as what's known as an affinity crime. It starts among your own group. Ponzi himself, in the 1920s, did it with Italians. Bernie did it with Jews before he expanded the fraud to others, and especially with funds overseas. There is - I'm Jewish, and I have to say, I've spoken to rabbis about this, and there is kind of an age-old, centuries-old feeling that a Jew won't betray a Jew, and you look for these kinds of leaders where you could make money because of the history of persecution. I think to some degree, that's what convinced Elie Wiesel to invest with Bernie, and (laughter) I got to tell you, oy, I ran into Elie at a charity lunch, and I said, do you ever heal from this? And he said, no, but we've been through worse.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, he was one of the most famous survivors of the Holocaust, and, you know, wrote and spoke extensively about it.

BEHAR: Yeah. And I asked Bernie, Bernie, were there no boundaries? Elie Wiesel? Elie Wiesel, the figure of the Holocaust, who survived so much awfulness - you had to take money from Elie? And he kind of dodged it by saying, oh, Elie, let me tell you about Elie. I had dinner with him once. You can't even understand a word he's saying. That guy is so full of [expletive]. He's counting the profits (laughter).

GROSS: What profits?

BEHAR: Well, I think his point was he feels that Elie was taking money out, allegedly, or that his foundation at one point did well, but I don't know if that's true, and frankly, I wouldn't take Bernie's word on that.

GROSS: Yeah. I'm sure you wouldn't take Bernie's word on hardly anything, in spite of the extensive interviews you did with him, but we'll get to that a little bit later. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guess is financial investigative journalist Richard Behar. His new book is called "Madoff: The Final Word." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Richard Behar, author of the new book "Madoff: The Final Word." Behar is a financial investigative journalist and a contributing editor at Forbes Magazine. So JPMorganChase is a major figure in this story, because virtually all the Ponzi scheme money was in one checking account at JPMorganChase. So that means the investors who invested - their money went into this checking account, and when Bernie had to pay somebody out because they wanted to cash in, that money, the payout, came from this checking account, so we're talking a lot of money.

BEHAR: Yeah. We're talking billions and billions. In one day alone, $100 million went in and out, and over the life of that Chase checking account, about $150 billion moved in and out.

GROSS: That's kind of strange for a checking account, no?

BEHAR: (Laughter) Yes. If that happened in my checking account, I think there'd be armed guards towing me away with chains, but Chase turned a blind eye to it. Chase was making a lot of money off of Bernie in all kinds of ways.

GROSS: Give us a sense of how they were making money from Bernie. Is that through - that's not through the checking account. That's through other channels?

BEHAR: There were many units of Chase that were making money from Bernie and also not communicating with each other, so if one unit was suspicious of Bernie, the other unit was not told. There are units of Chase called exotics and hybrids, which are not plant greenhouses. They're actually types of shares and funds that model their returns off of Bernie's. It gets a little complicated. But Chase dropped the ball, is kind of the lightest way that we can say it, and they ended up paying a hefty couple of billion dollars in fines and settlements as a result, instead of pleading guilty. That was their agreement with the Feds.

GROSS: Let's talk about how you started your correspondence with him. How did it start?

BEHAR: I reached out to Bernie, requesting an interview, a few months after he was arrested. I didn't hear back, which was fine with me. At that point in time, he was being bombarded by reporters, and I always take the long-form view. I just sit back and do other work, and sometimes I'm the last reporter in, picking the bones like a vulture to find what's missing, what was lost, what was inaccurate. And there was plenty in this case. When his son Mark committed suicide on the second anniversary of Bernie's arrest, I felt really badly for Bernie. Whatever these people do, can you imagine losing a child like that and you're in prison? And you weren't even invited to the funeral, if you could get there.

GROSS: So that made you feel sorry for Bernie.

BEHAR: It did. Well, of course, feeling sorry for Mark and his family - who wouldn't? But I also felt sorry for Bernie having to endure that kind of grief in prison as a human being. And I sent a card - a condolence card to him. And I thought it was the right thing to do, and of course, I also had an ulterior motive, hoping he'll at some point give me a ring, send me a note. And then one day, I got an email from the prison email system saying, Bernard Madoff would like to connect with you.

GROSS: And that's how it started.

BEHAR: That's how it started, and I have to tell you, by the end of it, I had enough of him. He'd call, I don't even want to take his calls anymore.

GROSS: Was he a talker? Did he chew your ear off?

BEHAR: Yes. And the problem with Bernie, and this is the problem, by the way, with a lot of con men, is that they won't let you ask a series of questions. Each phone conversation is limited to 15 minutes by the prison. And I would start with maybe six or seven questions I wanted to ask him. And I did the same in three prison visits to him. And he would just go off on two of the questions. He just wouldn't stop.

GROSS: This reminds me of some people I've interviewed.

BEHAR: (Laughter).

GROSS: Especially people in politics who have their own agenda, and they don't want to answer your question. They just run out the clock.

BEHAR: Yes, that's right. Politicians do that. I had interviews with FBI behavioral psychologists who spent decades at the famous serial killer unit. I don't know if you saw the series "Mindhunters," but it's based on that. And these FBI experts analyzed my conversations with Bernie, several of them, and helped show me - this is in the book - helped show me where he's lying, how he's using certain things, words like text bridges, all kinds of concepts, and...

GROSS: Can I elaborate on that? They told you that people who are pathological liars will sometimes end a sentence with and so on and so forth, which is a clue that they're not really prepared to fill in the details of the backstory because they haven't taken the lie that far yet. So they just bridge it with, meh, so on and so forth.

BEHAR: Yes. The FBI experts told me that, and so on and so forth is what they call a text bridge, which is a way basically to not explain any details. I had this problem with Bernie for 10 years, in which I would ask him for specific anecdotes, specific conversations with people. And he was really unable to go there.

GROSS: So what do you get out of interviewing a pathological liar? You knew Bernie most of the time was not telling you the truth. So what's the point?

BEHAR: I'm fascinated with how their brains work and whether I could figure out what they're saying that's accurate and what's not because they do tell the truth on certain stuff. And I thought, well, Bernie is the greatest-known fraudster in human history, and he won't be alive forever. And many books were done in the first few years after his fraud. And it's just time to try to do a definitive book to get into this guy's brain and see how he works, try to find out exactly when the fraud began, which I feel I did, and study the complicity of family members, and I learned a lot in that regard as well.

GROSS: OK, let's take a short break here. And I promise as soon as the break is over, we're going to hear some of those recorded interviews that you did with Bernie Madoff. If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Behar, and his new book is called "Madoff: The Final Word." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DICK HYMAN'S "JUBILEE STOMP")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Richard Behar, author of the new book "Madoff: The Final Word." It's about Bernie Madoff, the man behind the biggest financial Ponzi scheme in history. As part of his investment firm, he served as an investment adviser, with a wealthy clientele that included celebrities, colleges and philanthropic organizations. The stocks they invested in were just phony documents, and the profits they thought they'd made didn't exist either.

When Madoff was arrested in December 2008, about $68 billion in money his clients thought they had disappeared overnight. While serving his 150-year sentence, Madoff made about 50 phone calls and sent hundreds of emails to Behar. Behar's book is based on that correspondence and on interviews with Wall Street insiders, prosecutors, FBI agents and people who lost most or all of their money, including Behar's Aunt Adele. She invested through Madoff's company, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, or BLMIS. Madoff died in prison in 2021 at the age of 82. So let's hear one of the excerpts of the interviews you recorded with Bernie Madoff while he was in prison, serving his 150-year sentence, and this is about, like, did he ever think he was going to get caught, and was there a moment of realization when he realized that was going to happen? So you speak first.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEHAR: Let me ask you this. That moment - there's a moment, and maybe it's impossible to remember; we talked about it - when it was, like, 10 years before the arrest, when you thought, OK, I'm not going to get out of this unless a miracle happens. Was that moment sort of some moment you remember? Like, did you just go out and get drunk, like, oh, I'm never going to get out of it - I'm going to get arrested one day?

MADOFF: No. First of all, I don't drink, never did drink, other than occasional beer.

BEHAR: OK.

MADOFF: I never took any sort of drugs. My big outlet was going to a - sitting in a dark movie with my wife and just watching a movie. I used to do - see two a week.

BEHAR: So what would you - what did you do at that moment?

MADOFF: I just sort of...

BEHAR: Was it a moment? Maybe it wasn't a moment.

MADOFF: It wasn't a moment. I always, you know, figured, well, maybe some miracle will happen. Look, you know, you delude yourself...

BEHAR: Slowly, yeah.

MADOFF: ...Into thinking that, you know, some miracle is going to happen, you know, and you have a way of putting it out of your mind. It's no different than a guy going into war and knowing the odds are he's going to get killed. You know, you go in there, you sort of put it out of your mind. I mean, that's - I think about it all the time, you know, and, you know, it was different. Look, as I say, if I can convince people sometime that they say, look, you know, it wasn't about the money. He didn't - if he wanted to steal the money, he could have stole it and walked away from it, and that was it, when he realized it was going to be over.

BEHAR: You're right.

MADOFF: I could have done that, and I never did.

BEHAR: You're right.

MADOFF: You know...

BEHAR: You didn't live like Trump.

MADOFF: No.

BEHAR: You had a yacht, but...

MADOFF: You know, I lived well, but so what? But, I mean, let's assume I knew I was going to be arrested, and I was going to be caught. Why didn't I walk away?

BEHAR: For a moment, did you ever think about doing that?

MADOFF: No, because I...

BEHAR: No. Never?

MADOFF: Never, no. I just felt it was - you know, I had to try and see this thing through, regardless of what...

BEHAR: Where it goes.

MADOFF: ...The consequences were.

GROSS: So that was my guest, Richard Behar, interviewing Bernie Madoff in prison. Bernie says, some people say you could have stolen the money and walked away, and he says, but I never did. I had to see this through, regardless of consequences. I'm trying to figure out - what did he mean, I had to see this through? Like, see the scam through? Like, what is he seeing through? It's not, like, a great accomplishment. Do you know what I mean? He was never going to pay the people, so what does seeing it through mean?

BEHAR: It's a good question. I think he meant see it through in terms of just people getting their money back, not running and hiding in some country with billions he claimed he could have access to. Bernie was right in that he always said investors who lost would eventually get all of their money back. It's already up to about 75%, give or take. Of course, that doesn't include certain funds from around the world and indirect investors. We're never going to know, ultimately, how much people lost.

GROSS: So the tape we're about to hear next, that you recorded with Madoff while he was in prison, is about, does he take responsibility for the Ponzi scheme, and has he forgiven himself? So you speak first in this excerpt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEHAR: Let me ask you - what will it take for you to forgive yourself, or have you?

MADOFF: No, I'll never forgive myself. First of all, I'll never recover from losing my son Mark, which, you know, I feel responsible for.

BEHAR: Wait. You know, it's a sensitive subject. I wasn't going to bring it up, but I'm sorry to hear that you feel responsible.

MADOFF: No, I mean...

BEHAR: Because people, adults, you know - all right, you feel that way. I...

MADOFF: Oh, I - look, you know, of course, they - people tell me I shouldn't, and the psychologist here tells me that I shouldn't feel involved, but, I mean, I have to. I mean, clearly, look, when you created - I created this situation that it was very difficult for them to deal with. I mean - you know, I mean, he - they believed in me. They believed - you know, they looked at me a certain way, and then all of a sudden, they felt betrayed, which, you know, I understand. And, look, I have to be responsible for all of this.

BEHAR: No.

MADOFF: I mean, it's just something, and, you know, quite frankly, I never get over that.

GROSS: So that's an excerpt of an interview that my guest, Richard Behar, recorded with Bernie Madoff while Madoff was in prison, and, you know, first, I want to know, you sound kind of sympathetic to him in this - you know, oh, will you ever forgive yourself? I'm not sure I'd ask that of somebody who created such loss for so many people, you know, who created this Ponzi scheme. I'd want to know if he took responsibility and if he felt guilty. I'm not sure I'd ask if he'd ever forgive himself. Why did you ask him that?

BEHAR: I just assumed that because he said he had remorse over the Ponzi - whether he actually did have full remorse - that he probably would have remorse over the loss of his son and feel guilty about it, and also, as a journalist, I just kind of throw out questions and see what happens with them. Sometimes even the dumbest questions can be your best friend as a reporter.

GROSS: And so even though you ask Madoff, will he ever forgive himself, you write in your book that you find it hard to sympathize with his sons. Of course, you acknowledge that somebody has to be in great pain to die by suicide, and - but you think they were pretty complicit. What was their role in the company? 'Cause Madoff says, like, they didn't know - they just felt so betrayed by me.

BEHAR: Well, there's no evidence that the sons knew it was a, quote-unquote, "Ponzi scheme." But there was a lot of fraud going on, including between the so-called legit unit and the illegitimate unit. For example, in the last 10 years of the firm's existence, nearly $800 million moved from the phony end of the business to the legit end to prop it up. It was losing money. It was hemorrhaging. The boys...

GROSS: The legit end.

BEHAR: The legit end.

GROSS: Yeah.

BEHAR: The legit broker-dealer unit, and the boys were running that unit - they were sitting at the trading desk. Their Uncle Peter was overseeing them. What did they think was going on? How was the most successful part of the business on the 17th floor where people who they knew could not trade to save their lives were up there? And their father always joked about, I don't even know how to use a computer. That's the running joke in the company. Well, they never saw him trading. What is this - magic?

So there is a lot of complicity here. There was a shredding party after the SEC wrote seeking documents that I talk about in the book. The shredding party included Bernie's sons and Bernie's niece. And there are other things that show some complicity. There was no coded language. Bernie would be sitting at the trading desk, having lunch with his sons 'cause he wasn't trading. He just joined them for lunch. And his partner, his deputy in crime, would come up and talk about the fake trades. And people would overhear it like it was nothing. What did the market do yesterday? -Bernie would say to one of his sons, according to Frank. When I mention Frank, this is Frank DiPascali, Bernie's deputy in crime - Bernie's Sammy "The Bull" Gravano to Gotti, if you will.

And I obtained more than 100 pages of confidential FBI documents, laying out - summarizing interviews over a couple of years between agents and Frank DiPascali. And they told me they considered him one of the best witnesses they ever had in their careers and never caught him in a lie. So Frank is an important part of this story. And Frank laid out some of the reasons why he felt the sons had to know. And one of the FBI agents who I interview in the book, who was investigating the family, told me that the boys were on the road to indictment before they died.

GROSS: Madoff basically says that, you know, Ruth didn't know anything about this. She had nothing to do with it. She wasn't part of the business. Now, she admits to working on the books, being a bookkeeper, very early in the company's history in the early 1960s, but then she says she was out of the company. But the FBI agents working on this gave her the nickname Ruthie Books.

BEHAR: Yes.

GROSS: What did they think her role was in the company?

BEHAR: Ruthie Books, like an old-time mobster doing the numbers on the streets - Ruthie Books was great at math, and she was reconciling the Ponzi account for decades after 1963, right up until the last year before the company collapsed. She was reconciling in this context is basically counting up the checks in, checks out, making sure everything adds up, everything's tidy. So she was on "60 Minutes," and she lied. I spoke to a prosecutor, who's quoted in the book saying, "I can't believe I was watching '60 Minutes.' Ruth is lying." Why? Why did she lie? Why should we believe anything she says after that lie?

GROSS: She was never indicted, was she?

BEHAR: Ruth was never indicted. And there is certainly no evidence that she knew it was a Ponzi scheme. But again, the whole thing's filthy. At what point - I mean, this is sort of like just a filthy operation. There's stuff going on all the time that's wrong.

GROSS: Well, we have to take a short break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Behar. His new book is called "Madoff: The Final Word." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GNARLS BARLEY SONG, "SHE KNOWS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Richard Behar, author of the new book "Madoff: The Final Word." Behar is a financial investigative journalist and a contributing editor at Forbes Magazine.

So I have one more tape excerpt that I want to play, and thank you for sending us these excerpts of your interviews with Bernie Madoff while he was in prison. So...

BEHAR: Thank you. Thank you for playing them. There are other excerpts in the audio book you can hear.

GROSS: Oh, that's great. That is great to know. So I want to play another tape excerpt of your interviews with Bernie Madoff while Madoff was in prison. And I may use the word entertaining, this is the most entertaining of the clips that you sent because it has to do with a movie about Bernie Madoff and his wife Ruth in which De Niro played Bernie, and Michelle Pfeiffer played Ruth. And I have to point out that the FBI, one of the FBI agents you spoke to you, said that in addition to being a fraudster and a pathological liar, that Bernie was a narcissist. So that will lead right into this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEHAR: What do you think of being played by (laughter) Robert De Niro?

MADOFF: (Laughter) Yes. You know, I think he's probably - you know, he looks somewhat like me, so I think he's probably a good choice. I always assumed it would be him.

GROSS: OK, so that was Bernie Madoff being interviewed by my guest, Richard Behar, while Madoff was in prison. I love that, you know, Madoff says, like, oh, I always knew it would be De Niro, you know? Like, who goes around thinking, like, of course, De Niro's going to play me?

BEHAR: And I look like him.

GROSS: Yeah. Does he?

BEHAR: He's the - yeah. He could at times. That's the ultimate narcissist. That movie and other TV shows and books have portrayed Ruth and the sons as innocent victims. I have reached a different conclusion based on all of my investigating.

GROSS: Let's talk about your Aunt Adele, who invested with Bernie Madoff. How did she come to invest with him?

BEHAR: My Aunt Adele and my uncle Al started investing with Madoff through a kind of a feeder fund, a small feeder fund.

GROSS: So they invested in a fund that Bernie handled.

BEHAR: Yes. And that fund was shut down by the SEC in 1992. And Bernie's clients from that fund went directly with Bernie. My aunt said Bernie called her and said, do you understand the stock market? Are you able to take risks? The SEC called me, and they want me to take everyone on directly. Well, the SEC didn't do that.

GROSS: So she kind of invested first in a fund that Bernie handled. And then directly with Bernie. Can you say how much money?

BEHAR: Oh, of course. I asked her after this thing blew up. I said, how much did you have? She said, well, personally, $6 million.

GROSS: Wow.

BEHAR: I said, 6 million dollars? Wow. And she said she had another 10 million that she was handling for friends and family members. So that's a lot.

GROSS: Oh, gosh. So she must have felt responsible for their losses.

MADOFF: Yeah. Yeah, to a degree. But look, her view is - she refuses to call herself a victim, and I admire that. She said, no way. She took her chances. She did give most of her money away to scientists in a very interesting field that I really admired about consciousness-raising centers, funding research.

GROSS: How does she get so much money?

BEHAR: (Laughter) Well, she initially made about 1 million or two doing some very smart real estate purchases in the 1970s and '80s, and slowly started putting it into Bernie. You know, that's the way these things happen, 10%. And it turns out it's doing better than where you have with another broker, and then you put - oh, I'll put 20%, and eventually she had 100%. I said, 100%? And what really intrigued me here and bothered me, I said, Aunt Adele, you used to call me all the time. I'm an investigative reporter - you say, can you look up so and so? Can you find out something about x or y? You know, and I'd do it for her. She never told me this. She never mentioned the word Bernie Madoff.

It was a closed thing. When the stock market was tanking a few months before his arrest, I called her and said, well, I said, well, Aunt Adele, you know, I need a submarine to see my retirement account. How are you doing? And she said, oh, I'm fine. Markets go up, markets go down, and I do just fine. You know, I'm in a closed special thing.

GROSS: So it sounds like she got - she cashed in some of her investments with Madoff?

BEHAR: Yes, but she never lived lavishly at all. It wasn't her thing. She gave it to science. She regretted not being able to do it after she lost everything.

GROSS: Ah. OK. And you mentioned - just to, you know, be totally ethically clean on this, that she gave you a few thousand dollar to - as a down payment for an apartment years ago in the early '90s, I think.

BEHAR: Yes. Yes (laughter).

GROSS: And then gave you a few thousand dollars a few years later for furnishing.

BEHAR: Yeah.

GROSS: So you feel like you benefited from Bernie Madoff's scam.

BEHAR: Unbelievable. I mean, I was never an heir to any of her money. You know, as I say in the book, thank God. But yeah, she helped me with 50% of a down payment I had to do when I was younger. It wasn't much. It was $20,000, but I didn't have it. She also helped me with the medical bills on a deadly parasite I caught in the Sub Sahara. So...

GROSS: Oh, you were reporting there.

BEHAR: Yeah. It's kind of funny that parasite Bernie...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BEHAR: ...Kind of helped cure my African parasite. But no, this was - it's tainted money, and I just, you know, only recently, did I - was I actually - I was asked about it, do I feel any remorse having the money? And I said, no, I didn't know about it. But then I started thinking, wait, it's tainted. I don't feel good about that. What do I do? I got to think about what I do because this is not the way I live. It's not the way I work in my career.

So I'm trying to think of what I could do, and I may do some classes with students on financial literacy so that young people can learn what to do because there are so many scams going on. Phone scams, people are getting looted all the time and tricked and then there's Ponzi schemes. I think I can help.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, that'd be great. Let me reintroduce you. My guest is financial investigative journalist, Richard Behar. His new book is called "Madoff: The Final Word." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MODERN JAZZ QUARTET'S "TOPSY II")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Richard Behar, author of the new book "Madoff: The Final Word." Behar is a financial investigative journalist and a contributing editor at Forbes magazine.

You know, I want to ask you another question about your aunt Adele. You describe her as, like, a surrogate mother for you. You grew up in foster care. You never knew your parents. Do you know your backstory?

BEHAR: Yeah. I've - it's interesting. I - maybe this is why I became an investigative reporter. Maybe that's what a shrink would say, but I - it was a backstory I really didn't want to know until I was much older. I was kind of afraid a bit, but yes, my parents were mentally ill and unable to care for me, so I spent my whole childhood as a ward of an agency. And I think there are aspects of that that definitely made me want to investigate my surroundings. What's going on? What is reality? I would come home at 10 years old. I'd - there was terrible stuff going on in one foster home. I would grab Newsday, the newspaper, and go into the backyard with a tape recorder and do my own news program, just flipping through the paper, every day. It was my escape.

GROSS: Well, I'll ask you one more thing about Bernie Madoff. He said to you, so where's the book already?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You'd been talking to him for, like, years, like, 10 years, 15 years, no book, and he said to you, you're not going to finish this book until after I'm dead, and he was right. You finished this book after he was dead.

BEHAR: Yeah, I didn't intend to. I mean, there were times when I said, oh, Bernie, maybe this summer, I think I'll do it. But there was so much to investigate. There was - one of the prosecutors on a lot of Madoff cases, Matthew Schwartz, said you could investigate this for 50 years and still leave stuff on the table, and I tend to - a former managing editor of Fortune magazine once said to the staff that I never learned a fact that I didn't have to stew on for a month.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BEHAR: And it's a blessing and a curse, and, you know, that's me, so - it's funny. Gay Talese - Gay's in the book. I interviewed him. Gay Talese, who - I couldn't write a sentence even approaching any of his sentences, but Gay once said that writing a book is like driving along a highway at night in a truck without headlights. It rolls off into a ditch, and there you sit for 10 years.

GROSS: Well, that's a depressing thought.

(LAUGHTER)

BEHAR: I got five years on him there.

GROSS: But you were working - you know, you were working. It wasn't just in a ditch.

BEHAR: No, and I wasn't just working on the Madoff book, thank God.

GROSS: Yeah.

BEHAR: Because, I mean, look - but I did. I said to Arthur Levitt, the former chairman of the SEC - I said, Arthur, Bernie and I are apparently in prison for life...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

BEHAR: ...And - but he gets - look, Bernie gets free food, and I've got to boil my boots for my soup at night sometimes.

GROSS: (Laughter) And you were in the Bernie prison (laughter).

BEHAR: The Bernie prison. I used to have dreams - that's when you know it's enough, when you dream about Bernie.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, thank you for your book. Thank you for joining us on the show. It's really been a pleasure to talk with you.

BEHAR: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. It's been a great pleasure for me.

GROSS: Richard Behar's new book is called "Madoff: The Final Word." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the new labor union movement in America and the resurgence of manufacturing jobs, many in electric vehicles and green energy. Our guest will be David Madland, senior adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram, @nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS TRIO'S "BLUES R US")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS TRIO'S "BLUES R US") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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