Elie Wiesel Levels Scorn at Madoff+++
By STEPHANIE STROM
What does Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor who has dedicated his life to fighting hatred and intolerance, think about Bernard L. Madoff?
“ ‘Psychopath’ — it’s too nice a word for him,” Mr. Wiesel said in his first public comments on Mr. Madoff and the Ponzi scheme he is accused of perpetrating on thousands of individuals and charities, including the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
“ ‘Sociopath,’ ‘psychopath,’ it means there is a sickness, a pathology. This man knew what he was doing. I would simply call him thief, scoundrel, criminal.”
Mr. Wiesel’s charity lost $15.2 million, and he and his wife, Marion, lost their life savings. “This was a personal tragedy where we discovered all of a sudden what we had done in 40 years — my books, my lectures, everything — was gone,” said Mr. Wiesel, who shared his story as part of a panel discussion on the Madoff scandal on Thursday.
He said he began investing with Mr. Madoff at the suggestion of an old friend whom he declined to name, “just a wealthy man, not in the financial business.” Mr. Wiesel said, “He too lost $50 million.”
The Wiesels met Mr. Madoff on only two occasions, he said, adding that during one encounter Mr. Madoff had tried to persuade Mr. Wiesel to abandon his post at Boston University, where he teaches the humanities, philosophy and religion, for a chair at Queens College, alma mater of Mr. Madoff’s wife, Ruth.
“We must have spoken about ethics,” Mr. Wiesel said. “Some learn, and some don’t.”
After seeing how consistently Mr. Madoff generated handsome returns buying fairly plain-vanilla securities — “He bought 100 shares of Coca-Cola and sold 500 shares of Pfizer,” Mr. Wiesel said, describing his understanding of the Madoff strategy — the Wiesels decided to invest their charity’s assets with him as well.
“We checked the people who have business with him, and they were among the best minds on Wall Street, the geniuses of finance,” Mr. Wiesel said. “I am not a genius of finance. I teach philosophy and literature — and so it happened.”
Mr. Wiesel spoke on a panel at the “21” Club moderated by Joanne Lipman, the editor in chief of Portfolio, the Condé Nast magazine devoted to business and finance.
Another panelist, James Chanos, who specializes in short-selling, or betting that certain stock prices will fall, said Mr. Madoff’s investors bore some responsibility for not heeding the warning signs.
“Every checklist of responsible behavior on behalf of fiduciaries broke down here: ‘we’re not going to tell you what we’re in,’ ‘you can’t see where we’re investing,’ the statements weren’t clear, the strip-mall accounting firm,” Mr. Chanos said.
Harvey L. Pitt, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, said that Madoff investors were not the only ones hoodwinked in the last several years, that investors in Wall Street firms also tolerated less-than-ideal transparency. “I really do believe that there was criminality at a lot of these firms,” Mr. Pitt said, citing the different valuations that financial institutions placed on the same financial instruments.
“It’s not per se fraudulent to have different values for different purposes, but someone has to look at that and figure out what was going on,” he said. “These kinds of things reflect more than happenstance or carelessness; they reflect criminality.”
Mr. Wiesel said, however, that spotting problems was not easy. “Remember, there was a myth he created around him, that everything was so special, so unique that it had to be secret,” he said, adding that his charity’s accountants had not identified potential concerns about Mr. Madoff.
He said he was amazed at the outpouring of support for his charity in the wake of the scandal. “Unsolicited, hundreds of people, literally, hundreds of people we have never known sent us money through the Internet, $5, $18, $100, one even $1,000,” he said.
The Elie Wiesel Foundation will hold a benefit concert on May 26 to raise more money, and Mr. Wiesel has a book, “A Mad Desire to Dance,” coming out soon.
Asked what punishment he would like to see for Mr. Madoff, Mr. Wiesel said: “I would like him to be in a solitary cell with only a screen, and on that screen for at least five years of his life, every day and every night, there should be pictures of his victims, one after the other after the other, all the time a voice saying, ‘Look what you have done to this old lady, look what you have done to that child, look what you have done,’ nothing else.”
I am not sure why this is news. Sounds like childish name calling. But it is in the Times, it involves a Nobel winner, and so it must be news.