On the third anniversary of the unmasking of Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion investment scam, books are hitting the best-seller lists and family members are giving high-profile interviews.
Ponzi schemes, insider trading and mortgage fraud have sunk white collar crimes into their lowest nadir since the junk bond era. Madoff’s scam was particularly damaging in Southern California, where the financier used his connections in the Jewish community to fleece high-profile victims including Larry King and former Dodger’s great Sandy Kaufax.
When it comes down to it, Madoff’s crimes were outrageous not only for their scale but also because regulators brushed off any number of experts who questioned his phony results. But there are plenty of other Ponzi schemes in this world, which explains why a recent press release from the Ventura County District Attorney’s office caught my eye.
Shortly before Halloween, Fidel Bermudez, age 44, pleaded guilty to 10 counts of securities fraud related to a Ponzi scheme he ran between 2004 and 2007. Bermudez, like Madoff, relied heavily on a religious connection as a way to meet and woo potential victims. He met fellow congregants from the Church of God in Simi Valley and their friends and families and made his pitch. According to the District Attorney’s office, Bermudez promised “spectacular returns” but offered very little in specifics.
Instead, the District Attorney’s office believes Bermudez collected about $1.7 million in all and paid out $550,000 to earlier investors, in some cases persuading them to “roll over” their earlier investments into new schemes.
In order to cover up his crimes, Bermudez, a resident of Thousand Oaks, initially blamed a partner for the missing $1.2 million when the scheme went bad.
He then left for Florida, where he was arrested in Miami in June. He will be sentenced in Ventura County Superior Court on Dec. 8 and he could serve a maximum of eight years in state prison.
The general name for scams run by people like Bermudez and Madoff are “affinity frauds.” That’s because the perpetrators look for people with similar backgrounds or “affinities” to hatch their schemes.
They use word of mouth in church or at a private club to spread the word, operating below the radar of regulators who might get wind of the phony claims. They count on peer pressure and the psychology of having a personal relationship with the investment guru to create an aura of safety about the investments. They tout the virtues of putting your money with somebody you see every week in church and when things go bad the circle of silence around a fraud can keep things quiet for a while.
We have learned tragically through this Great Recession that money is hard to make and even harder to hang on to.
For his crimes, Bernie Madoff is facing 150 years in jail. We’ll find out soon what Fidel Bermudez’ fate will be.
Kudos to Kavli
At the other end of the ethical spectrum is a guy like Fred Kavli.
A Norwegian native with a gift for high-tech electronics, Kavli built a successful company in Ventura County and sold it, using some of the proceeds to set up the Kavli Foundation, which has created a series of prizes that some people think will be the Nobels of the 21st Century.
Kavli, a Santa Barbara resident, recently was awarded with the 2011 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy. That’s a well-deserved honor.
• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]