How Bernie Made Basket Cases of His Customers' Accounts

November 2, 2009
John Dodge

Two years ago, Bob McMahon wondered why antiquated systems at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Services weren't replaced with more modern and efficient off-the-shelf systems.

The Madoff systems were expensive to maintain and made it difficult to grow the business by expanding into new classes of securities. McMahon's job: To organize and document projects that would create custom technology for the firm's trading operations.

On Dec. 11, 2008, he got his answer.

That day, Bernie Madoff was arrested and charged with stealing tens of billions of his clients' money over decades. McMahon knew if "technologists" replaced the proprietary systems with more modern and open computers, they would have invariably found the absence of data on countless stock trades that supposedly took place. In a sense, the preservation of old computer technology helped Madoff successfully go undetected for years until his massive Ponzi scheme collapsed that day.

Over the past six weeks, Securities Industry News has dug into and beyond the court records to construct the most extensive report yet on how Madoff actually operated: The systems and technology he and underlings used to create-or fake-the most detailed set of customer accounts underlying a fraud in the history of the securities industry.

Included are the first details of a declaration filed Oct. 16 on behalf of the court-appointed trustee, Irving Picard, investigating the case, which describes how the real and the fake trading floors worked. And why the securities investors believed they owned are never going to be declared "missing." The answer: Because they never existed in the first place.

On the eve of the first anniversary of Madoff's arrest, this then is the story of how the legitimacy of his House 5 was turned into the bastard product of House 17-used solely to create and maintain an alternate reality of trades never made.

But it's more than that. It's also a cautionary tale to information technology managers and executives at shops up and down Wall Street. If you think something is amiss, don't let it rest. Do your own investigation. Before the company you work for turns out to be missing as well.


"I asked myself how Bernie could have hidden and maintained this for so long. A lot of it was done because he had proprietary and legacy systems. And he relied on IT people he hired and paid," to not upset the status quo, says McMahon.

As a project manager, he always felt like an odd duck at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Services (BLMIS), an outfit which seemed to lack standards and procedures routine at former employers of his such as the International Securities Exchange and CheckFree Investment Services (now Fiserv, Inc.). Little was documented and the company seemed to be overwhelmed keeping the older systems from breaking down.

"I immediately recognized there was massive institutional chaos in the way the place was managed. No one found value in participating in project management meetings or in writing things down. There was no documentation," says McMahon, today an operational performance consultant for Standard & Poors.

McMahon lasted less than a year at Madoff's firm. He was hired in February 2007, by long-time BLMIS chief information officer Elizabeth Weintraub. She died in September of that year.