06.27.09

The Madoff Family Splinters

As Bernie Madoff’s sentencing approaches, Ruth’s sister—who lost millions—is trying to cope with her own losses, anger and confusion. The Daily Beast’s Allan Dodds Frank reports from Palm Beach.

As Bernie Madoff’s sentencing approaches, Ruth’s sister—who lost millions—is trying to cope with her own losses, anger, and confusion. The Daily Beast’s Allan Dodds Frank reports from Palm Beach.

When Bernie Madoff is sentenced in federal court Monday, The Daily Beast can safely predict one family member who will not be there to show support: his sister-in-law Joan.

On a recent trip to The Bernie War Zone of Palm Beach and Boca Raton, Florida , where many formerly affluent people no longer can afford to flee the seasonal 95 degree heat, people who know Joan Alpern Roman painted a picture for The Daily Beast of a woman who feels as though she is a double victim—both her fortune and her good family name have been savaged by her despicable brother-in-law. The only area of forgiveness involves her younger sister Ruth Alpern Madoff, who Joan remains convinced was not a witting partner in crime with Bernie.

“It could not have been just greed. The man was living in his own world. I think he lost all sense of humanity.”

My encounters included people who go back to Far Rockaway (New York ) High School, where a half-century ago Bernard Madoff met and wooed the pert little blonde then known as Ruthie Alpern.

Until his arrest December 11, Bernard Madoff had been lionized by his extended family as its blessed benefactor and the Midas of Wall Street. Now as they try to sort out this financial massacre, these people say Bernard Madoff clearly must have been gripped by megalomaniacal mental illness.

“It could not have been just greed. The man was living in his own world. I think he lost all sense of humanity,” says a person close to Joan. “He lost all human feelings about what he was doing to people. He was crazy in the sense that he thought he was the smartest guy in the world.”

When the person close to Joan, who also lost much of the family fortune, is asked about the multimillion-dollar cash transfers Ruth handled under questionable circumstances, the answer comes in this form: “Ruthie lived a very good life. She did not question it. She may have done what he told her, but even then she should have questioned it.”

There is no explanation for Ruthie and Bernie’s attempt last December to mail watches and jewelry to Joan and to Bernie’s own sister, Sondra Weiner, of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Sondra Weiner and her husband Marvin are said to have lost $7 million. Were Ruthie and Bernie sending their “loved ones” portable stuff worth tens of thousands of dollars to hock? Did Ruthie and Bernie think the gift-wrapped baubles would somehow ameliorate Bernie’s theft of millions from their own flesh and blood? Well, if that was the thought that counted, it did not register.

Joan and Robert Roman have been so mad they contemplated appearing at federal court in New York Monday for Bernie’s sentencing before deciding that would just make their own situation worse. They remain at home in Broken Sound, the expensive, gated Boca Raton country-club community where they live.

Now, says the person familiar with Joan’s thinking: “They are blocking off their minds. It is a closed case as far as she and her husband are concerned. She thinks her sister was just support [for Bernie] because she does not think that Ruth would let her hang out in the wind like this.”

Here’s what Joan has been telling friends: "Bob and I decided it is over. Let [the judge and prosecutors] do what they want with [Bernie]. When something bothers you and is very painful, you shrug it off.”

When The Daily Beast asked Joan Alpern Roman what message she would like to send to Bernie in court, she declined to comment, saying: “I am not interested in talking to the press.”

What is certain is this: On June 12, Joan and Robert Roman made their victim status official by filing two bankruptcy-court claims as creditors against Madoff—for $2.7 million and $8.7 million.

Helen Davis Chaitman, the lawyer who filed the bankruptcy court and Securities Investor Protection Corp. claims on behalf of the Romans, told The Daily Beast: “Madoff didn’t discriminate between people. There is no reason to think that the Romans got special treatment. They got screwed like everyone else.”

Joan has known Bernie since she was a teenager. The Alpern girls’ parents, Saul and Sara, were among Bernie’s first investors in the 1960s. More important, Saul, an accountant, brought in investors for Bernie and set up the first guaranteed return investments that were funneled through Bernie.

In Florida to this day, the children and grandchildren of Madoff investors brought in by the older Alpern believe he was an honest man who never would have cooked the books for his son-in-law Bernie. Many of these old investors suspect the fraud started after Saul retired in the 1970s, handing the business to his two designated partners, Frank Avellino and Michael Bienes.

Nearly two decades later, the Securities & Exchange Commission shut down Avellino & Bienes as unregistered investment advisers. By 1992, they had 3,200 investors with $441 million invested—all in accounts held by Madoff.

At the time, the SEC case looked like a normal enforcement matter. Today, it appears to be one of the first times SEC officials were outsmarted by Madoff. At the time, Avellino & Bienes were represented by Ira Lee Sorkin, who is Madoff’s criminal-defense attorney today.

Avellino & Bienes paid off the investors immediately and in full, getting the money from Madoff and settling the case with the SEC before any discovery could be ordered. So Bernie escaped scrutiny. And most of the investors went right back to him.

Saul and Sara Alpern also figure in another way in the ongoing investigation of Ruth Madoff. She had been claiming—as her own money not related to Bernie's fraud—nearly $85 million. That's $84.6 million, including $40 million in cash and securities in bank accounts, $22 million in real estate, and the remainder in boats and personal property, including $2.6 million in jewelry.

Late Friday, Ruth reached an agreement with prosecutors that forfeits all but $2.5 million.

Outside of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, Ruth Madoff never really had a job. So investigators are looking at the estates left by Saul and Sara Alpern to their two daughters—Ruth and Joan—and the Alpern grandchildren.

As one investigator tells The Daily Beast: “The major question for Ruth is how much money did mommy and daddy leave her? If the money is not from mommy and daddy, this is a problem.”

Florida probate court records, first examined by Newsday, show that Ruth and Joan each got $600,000 from trusts left by their mother in 1996 while perhaps an additional $2 million may have been left in trust for grandchildren.

ABC News has also reported that Saul Alpern’s 1999 will left only $60,000 in probate and that he left Pitney Bowes stock worth $39,000 to Ruth, which she turned over to her sister Joan.

While there is no public accounting of gifts the Alperns may have given left their daughters, the discrepancy in wealth is stark. Joan and Robert Roman, who retired as an insurance agent, claim total losses of $11.4 million. Ruthie's claim that she was entitled to nearly eight times that much has been suspect. The $2.5 million the prosecutors are letting her keep may be much closer to her real inheritance.

So while Madoff’s wife, sons, and brother Peter receive no sympathy in New York, in South Florida, many victims are ready to accept that Ruth’s sister—Joan—is one of them, an innocent bystander.

Joan and her husband, these people say, are welcome to commiserate at their secret meetings for victims, where people who thought they had inherited “The Jewish T-bill”—a Madoff account—now gather to fight for $500,000 restitution checks from the SIPC. After all, says Helen Chaitman, “In the eyes of the law, Joan Alpern is no different a victim just because she is a relative.”

Allan Dodds Frank is a business investigative correspondent who specializes in white-collar crime.