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02.05.09

I Made the List!

The bankruptcy court late yesterday released the full list of Madoff victims, from Steven Spielberg to Kevin Bacon. Former New Jersey Mayor Burt Ross—who lost $5 million—on the upside of making the list.

I’m exhausted. For hours I’ve been listening to testimony in Congress on how the SEC screwed up, how The Wall Street Journal failed to follow a lead, and so on.

As somebody who was taken to the cleaners by Madoff, I am rightfully annoyed by the failure of the nation’s regulatory systems.

For me, there’s also reason to celebrate losing $5 million to Uncle Bernie.

But for me, there’s also reason to celebrate losing $5 million to Uncle Bernie: I’m now officially a member of the most exclusive club of suckers that ever walked the face of the earth.

When you think of the director Steven Spielberg, the actor Kevin Bacon, the publisher Mort Zuckerman, the Mets owner Fred Wilpon, and the economist Henry Kaufman, you can now think of me, Burt Ross, schmuck of the year. In my almost 66 years on this planet, I have never kept such impressive company. Life sure doesn’t get any better than this!

Of course, I’m not happy. But strangely, I’m not especially angry, either. I get upset when I see that smirk on Madoff’s face and think of him living in his fancy penthouse paid for with my money. And Christopher Cox, former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, really pisses me off when he says the SEC “might have” blown it. Come on, Mr. Cox, you guys outdid Monica Lewinsky. I get sick when I hear of the charities obliterated and the old and infirm investors who are left with nothing.

But I am having trouble coughing up any anger. Perhaps I am just in deep denial. I was outsmarted by a genius—an evil genius, but a genius. Charles Ponzi, move over. You were a two-bit player, a rank amateur. Madoff is the real thing. You have to give the devil his due. Bernard L. Madoff fooled us all. I had to pull strings to get into his scheme—and was honored when he merely took my phone call. Now that’s a con man at his best. He even had the regulators eating out of his hand.

My lifestyle has changed, but I don’t mind getting back to basics. I am blessed to have a loving wife and two great kids, and we are all healthy. I eat more turkey now and less steak, but my cholesterol is probably nose-diving. I drive a Toyota Camry hybrid rather than an Audi 8AL, but the Audi sucked anyway. I’m just doing what most Americans are, cutting back and hunkering down.

This is actually my second 15 minutes of fame—the first 15 minutes was for turning down a $500,000 bribe from the mafia, and this one’s for losing $5 million thanks to Madoff. I wouldn’t mind one more 15-minute stint—this time for winning the $50 million lottery, although I would be willing to compromise for, let’s say, the $5 million I lost.

I have far more respect for the mafia than I do for Uncle Bernie. Not even close. When the mob first approached me in the 1970s, I was mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., a town of around 35,000 people just on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. A man right out of Central Casting carrying a revolver under his jacket and a huge pinky ring adorning his equally huge finger came to my apartment. Nothing subtle about Joey DiGiacomo, the alias he came up with for our first tête-à-tête.

Joey had a straightforward proposition. In exchange for some favors—a euphemism for bribes—he wanted me to rezone some valuable property adjacent to the GW Bridge. First he offered me two blondes who could “make your hair stand on end,” and then he upped the ante by offering me $500,000 in small bills. Half a million dollars was a lot of money in 1974, regardless of the denominations, and it still is. But I never thought about taking it, reported the bribe to the FBI, wore a wire, and testified at trial, and six people were convicted. Joey spent a year in the slammer.

Unlike Joey, Bernard L. Madoff was neither direct nor straightforward. I never met him. He worked through intermediaries. He played hard to get. You needed pull just for him to take your money. He gave to charities, hobnobbed with the rich and famous, became a pillar of the community. He even had the SEC eating out of his hand.

His business proposition had no quid pro quo like the mob’s. You gave Madoff your money and Uncle Bernie bought himself jets, yachts, and homes around the world. Not bad if you can get away with it, and he got away with it for decades.

I’ll take the mob any day over Madoff. Mobsters are thugs, but they have their code of honor. If you live up to your part of the bargain, they will keep their part. They do not pretend to be who they are not. Madoff is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Nothing you see is what you get. The monthly computer runs of securities he sent his investors are as phony as his soul. If Joey got a year in the pokey, then I hope Bernard L. Madoff lives as long as Methuselah and spends all 969 years behind bars.

This all could have been avoided had I listened to my wife. A few months before all hell broke loose, she suggested we sell some of our holdings with Madoff. She felt we had too many of our assets in something we didn’t understand. I thought she was crazy. “Why should we take money out of our only investment not going down?” I asked her.

In retrospect, Joan, the daughter of an FBI agent, had more common sense than I did. I should not have been swayed by the recommendation of wealthy people. The rich make mistakes all the time. I should not have invested in something I didn’t understand, and I certainly shouldn’t have invested so much of my money in any one thing. The moral of the story is what every husband already knows, what Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners learned every episode—LISTEN TO YOUR WIFE!

Burt Ross, former mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey and former Administrator of the New Jersey Energy Office, is a lawyer and real estate investor who lives with his wife in New Jersey. A book The Bribe was written about his exploits with the mafia.