Bianca Kostinden, a Swampscott High School junior, says she felt history’s whispers everywhere on her visit to Israel last summer, calling it the best 12 days of her young life. That she traveled there at all was a victory in itself.
The well-known nonprofit that sponsored her trip, the Robert I. Lappin Youth to Israel program, had been one of the early casualties of Bernard Madoff’s $65 billion investment swindle, which destroyed paper fortunes and leveled charities nationwide.
Now, five years later, many of those institutions have risen from the ashes, the Lappin program among them. “I think this trip is almost a complete slap in the face to Bernie Madoff,’’ said Kostinden. “Because this entire community, this program, we rose above it.’’
It’s a survival tale that has played out many times over since that surreal day in December 2008, when retired grandmothers and sophisticated global bankers all learned at once that their reliable Madoff profits were a fraud.
That so many people would ultimately rise above the scandal and the financial losses seemed improbable at the time. Madoff’s stunning confession came on Dec. 11, 2008, revealing that he and his staff had been faking investment returns for years. The scheme had imploded amid the global financial crisis then unfolding.
‘I think we turned a very sad and ugly experience into something that’s good.’
There was no money left, no real profits. The billions of dollars his legions of clients had counted on to fund retirements and mortgages, human rights campaigns and hospital wings simply did not exist. Some private investors never recovered from both the loss of their savings and their loss of financial security.
The ordeal had a special sting in Boston, home to a host of victims, villains, and beneficiaries of Madoff’s massive theft. Philanthropist Carl Shapiro, who invested with Madoff longer than almost anyone, had to repay $625 million of his profits to regulators.
He lived to see his 100th birthday, but the prominent family foundation he ran with his late wife — once one of the biggest benefactors of health care and the arts in greater Boston — is a fraction of its former size.
Shapiro’s son-in-law, Robert Jaffe, was covered in the family’s agreement with regulators. The Securities and Exchange Commission had filed civil charges alleging that he directed more than $1 billion of investor funds to Madoff. Both Jaffe and Shapiro have maintained they did not know Madoff was stealing from some clients to pay others.
Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Boston University professor, lost millions in his Foundation for Humanity but received a flood of donations that replenished the fund. A Holocaust survivor who told Oprah he has “seen worse” than Madoff, Wiesel has since been through cardiac surgery and written a new book called “Open Heart.’’
Irving Picard, the Madoff bankruptcy trustee in charge of recouping money for investors, found 116 client accounts in Massachusetts worth $296 million that qualified for reimbursements of losses, according to his spokeswoman, Amanda Remus. So far those investors have received $168 million, she said.
But investors will never get all the money they thought existed in their accounts — a source of deep frustration to many. Picard determined that investors could claim only the money they originally invested, not the balances reflected on their fake account statements.
Of roughly $17 billion invested, he has recovered nearly $10 billion. Some of that money came from agreements reached with big Madoff investors like Shapiro, who allegedly received hundreds of millions of dollars in other people’s money over the years.
One of the largest settlements was reached with Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., which paid $1 billion into the fund after Picard sued the Springfield company because its Tremont Group Holdings Inc. hedge fund unit had ignored “obvious warning signs’’ of fraud and handed $3 billion of customer money to Madoff.
The fraud hurt investors from Boston to Palm Beach, Fla., where Robert Lappin, of the foundation that funds students’ trips to Israel, spends winters in the same oceanfront resort where Madoff once rented cabanas.
“I would bump into him occasionally,’’ said Lappin, now 91, who also saw Madoff’s brother Peter. “They seemed like nice people,’’ he recalled thinking.
Deborah Coltin, executive director of the Lappin Foundation, remembers the shock of the news when they learned that Robert Lappin had lost $83 million across five business and charitable accounts he entrusted to Madoff.
“On December 12th, we closed — there was no money left,’’ she said. “Everybody lost their jobs, and we closed. Everything just stopped.’’
But they never skipped a year of the Israel excursion. Lappin personally covered his employees’ retirement funds lost to Madoff, and a man anonymously gave the foundation $100,000 to continue its mission of teaching kids about Israel. Now the group raises $500,000 a year for the youth trip, and Robert Lappin pays the rest, about $150,000, he said.
Lappin himself faces the prospect of having to repay $2.7 million to the Madoff trustee, past investment gains that allegedly belong to other people. But Lappin said he doesn’t worry about it much: “I think we turned a very sad and ugly experience into something that’s good.’’
Harry Markopolos, the famous Madoff whistle-blower from Whitman who was ignored by regulators for years, has made a business of scoping out fraud. He’s testified before Congress, written a book, and been the subject of a documentary.
Markopolos has mellowed but is still amazed that, “No one at the big banks has gone to jail.’’
Indeed, while Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison, and his associates face jail terms, none of the sophisticated investors, bankers, and hedge fund managers who reaped his strangely large returns for years have faced criminal charges.
Said Markopolos, “The big banks obviously have a get-out-of-jail-free card.’’