NEW YORK — Bernard Madoff’s longtime secretary defended herself from the witness stand Monday, telling a jury about a 40-year career working unwittingly alongside a historic Ponzi scheme that began when she recognized through Madoff’s stutter that he wanted a ham and cheese sandwich.
‘‘He gave me a thumbs up and said: ‘You’ll do really good here,’ ’’ Annette Bongiorno recalled. She was the second defendant to testify among five charged with helping Madoff cheat thousands of investors of nearly $20 billion.
She insisted repeatedly under questioning from her attorney, Roland Riopelle, that her ability to decipher unspoken words stopped short of realizing Madoff’s fraud in an office where colleagues often repeated Madoff’s mantra never to speak of his operations and his work on behalf of clients.
The fraud collapsed in December 2008 when he confessed his seemingly endless ability to turn double-digit profits for investors was phony and his accounts were nearly empty. He is serving a 150-year prison sentence.
Just after Bongiorno went to the witness stand, her lawyer asked her if she had known her longtime boss was running a Ponzi scheme. ‘‘Absolutely not!’’ she said.
At times, Bongiorno seemed starry-eyed as she described Madoff, saying at one point: ‘‘I loved Bernie. He was like my big brother.’’
She said she was so inspired by his kindness that she cut out a picture of him in a tuxedo from 1993, mounted it on cardboard, and wrote ‘‘My hero’’ on it, keeping it on her desk until he was arrested.