Madoff: I can't believe I got away with it for so long

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Just when we thought that the twisted tale of Bernie Madoff story had come to an end, America's favorite white collar criminal is once again in the headlines. On Tuesday, Madoff met with his first guests since moving to the federal correctional complex in Butner, North Carolina. In a four and a half hour interview with San Francisco attorneys Joseph Cotchett and Nancy Fineman, he answered all of the lawyers' questions, expressing surprise that the scheme lasted as long as it did.

Cotchett, who represents a group of Madoff's victims, indicated that the famed Ponzi schemer was looking healthy and was apparently working out. He especially noted Madoff's candor and eagerness to talk. Following his December 2007 confession, Madoff's lawyers advised him to refuse to speak with the FBI. Perhaps, now that he is in jail, there remains little reason for him to maintain his silence.

On the other hand, a large part of Madoff's willingness to speak so openly may lie in the fact that Cotchett and Fineman were threatening to sue his wife and sons. However, it is difficult to discount the importance of his current isolation: while Madoff is famous among Butner's inmates, this isn't the kind of fame that one craves. Rather, it's the kind of fame that can lead to a strategically-placed shank inserted by another lifer who is looking to garner a little fame of his own. It is easy to imagine the formerly-popular investor now finding himself exploring the miseries of isolation.

When Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison, many members of the general public (myself included) smiled at the thought of him rotting away in a deep, dark hole. However, as his interview with Cotchett demonstrates, Madoff may well be embarking on a path that could lead, if not to rehabilitation, then at least to some measure of redemption.

The idea of interviewing criminals in order to understand the criminal mind dates back at least to Dostoevsky, and the FBI regularly uses interviews as a crime-fighting tool. For example, Frank Abagnale, the famed forger, continues to advise the FBI. Similarly, the FBI's Robert Ressler used exhaustive interviews with serial killers to form the basis of many of today's profiling protocols.

On one level, conversation with Madoff may seem meaningless. After all, his crimes were incredibly simple: playing on his victims' greed and ignorance, he gained their trust and abused it to his advantage. For disbelievers, Madoff's wealth -- and that of his customers -- eloquently testified to the success of his company. Similarly, the fact that so much of his business was generated by referrals and word-of-mouth made him seem like a rich-man's secret, a sort of reward for reaching a certain level of affluence.

While confidence games are well understood, however, Madoff still has a lot to teach. For example, it is still not clear how he managed to dupe the SEC and other regulators. In many ways, his actions -- and the fact that he got away with them for so long -- have fundamentally wounded the reputation of the financial community. Perhaps, through cooperation with the authorities that he undermined, Madoff can help repair some of the damage that he has done.
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