He Almost Got By

by Don Meyer, Ph.D | Oct 03, 2009

"Too many people sow their wild oats all week and then go to church on Sunday and pray for a crop failure."

I am still trying to comprehend the magnitude of Bernard Madoff's multi-billion dollar scam. In USA TODAY (6/30/2009) Kevin McLoy called Madoff, "...the most reviled emblem of business corruption to emerge from the nation's gilded age." 

The judge who sentenced the 71 year old Madoff to 150 years in prison called his crimes "extraordinarily evil." Thousands of people were victimized by his actions making it one of the largest and longest-running financial crimes in history. 

"It will cost me the rest of my life," Sharon Lissauer said. She took all of the money she had saved in her career as a model along with the money she had inherited after her mother died. On November 4, 2008 she invested it with Madoff and a little more than a month later, all of it was gone. "It's as if I've never worked a day in my life." 

Florence Roth and her husband, Richard were retired and living off their savings which they invested with Madoff. They have now had to put their home up for sale and they are struggling to pay their bills. They had to move Florence's 95-year old mother from an assisted living facility and they can't afford a lawyer to help them get their money back. "Our family is becoming destitute. My life and my family have been ruined." 

The list goes on and on. Allan Goldstein said, "Our lives are a nightmare." Donald and Judy Rafferty, who lost their retirement savings and now must work part time, said it this way, "I don't know how we're going to go on. It has shattered lives. Shattered our faith, our trust." 

In spite of numerous investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Madoff got by for years with a classic Ponzi scheme. Charles Ponzi became notorious in the USA for using the scheme in early 1920. 

A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that pays "returns" to separate investors from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors, rather than from any actual profit earned. Investors are promised outrageous (too good to be true) returns on their investment and their funds pay the "returns" on previous investors. As long as the money keeps coming, the scheme keeps going. 

What intrigues me most about the Madoff story is the way he almost got by. In 1992 the SEC began investigations into his business dealings. Over the next 16 years various questions were raised, accusations were made, and investigations occurred but the money kept pouring in and he kept on getting by. In early 2006 the SEC opened another investigation of Madoff but in January 2008 it closed its probe without taking any enforcement action. 

From all indications, Madoff was cleared of any wrong doing. He almost got by with the largest white-collar crime in history. But on December 9, 2008 Madoff apparently told his sons that his business was "basically a giant Ponzi scheme." To their credit, the sons immediately contacted their lawyers who then notified authorities. Two days later Madoff was arrested. 

I can't imagine the courage it must have taken for Madoff's sons to do what they did. That probably is a story all its own. But what amazes me about the Madoff fall is how he almost got by. 

We often see those who seemingly get by with murder, as we say. They commit injustices or demonstrate unethical behavior or are just plain mean and their violations of honesty and integrity and their treatment of good people make us think, "Will the accounts ever be settled?" 

Madoff's story is a reminder that we always reap what we sow. You can't break the law of sowing and reaping any more than you can break the law of gravity. It's just a matter of time. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to