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Lawyers indicate Madoff plea could occur next week

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LARRY NEUMEISTER | March 6, 2009 09:17 PM EST | AP

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NEW YORK — Bernard Madoff has taken steps that suggest he could plead guilty as early as next week to charges that he carried out one of the biggest financial frauds in history, lawyers said Friday. Madoff, 70, is waiving his right to have a grand jury hear the government's case against him, agreeing instead to be charged directly by prosecutors, a step defendants take when they are preparing to plead guilty in a case.

Late Friday, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin called on potential victims who wish to be heard at a Thursday plea hearing to notify the court a day earlier. Madoff could enter a guilty or not guilty plea that day, depending on whether he has reached a plea deal with the government.

It is unclear when a possible plea deal could occur, and negotiations could still fall apart. Madoff has a hearing in Manhattan federal court scheduled for next week that could serve as the venue for a guilty plea.

A potential plea deal could mark an important step toward answering the vexing questions about how Madoff carried out his sweeping scheme and who else may have been involved in a fraud that has wiped out investors' life savings around the world.

The U.S. attorney's office first suggested Friday that a plea was imminent when it filed a brief court document indicating Madoff was ready to waive an indictment. One of Madoff's lawyers said he had already done so. A waiver of indictment is a necessary procedural step before a defendant enters a guilty plea.

Prosecutors have a deadline of next Friday to bring an indictment against Madoff under the speedy-trials law.

The filing was the latest sign pointing toward a possible plea deal with Madoff, who has been confined to his Manhattan penthouse since his arrest after authorities said he told his family that he had engaged in a $50 billion fraud. Authorities have since said money lost by investors is far less than $50 billion.

Madoff has never contested the allegations and recently surrendered millions of dollars in major assets, actions that typically precede plea deals.

The legal developments came as a financial organization in charge of reimbursing Madoff investors said it sent out the first checks to victims Friday, Stephen Harbeck of the Securities Investor Protection Corp. told The Associated Press.

SIPC is an industry-funded organization that steps in when a brokerage firm fails. It has been helping process hundreds of claims by investors hoping to recoup losses.

Investors are eligible for up to $500,000 from the organization, and have until July to file claims. Harbeck would not disclose how much money was sent to the first investors to get checks, but he said they deposited cash and never made a withdrawal, making the forensic accounting very simple.

Harbeck said he did not expect any plea deal to affect the organization's work.

"We will go about our business regardless of what happens on the criminal side," he said.

Daniel J. Horwitz, a Madoff defense lawyer, would only say "we've waived the right to indictment and the case will proceed by information."

Typically, a defendant is brought before a judge, waives indictment and enters a guilty plea the same day to a charging document known as an "information." It resembles an indictment but is brought by prosecutors rather than a grand jury.

Prosecutor's spokeswoman Rebekah Carmichael declined to comment.

Matthew Fishbein, a former chief of the criminal division in the federal prosecutor's office in Manhattan who is now in private practice, said a waiver of indictment is often followed quickly by a guilty plea, but it does not have to occur immediately.

Madoff has already begun relinquishing his assets, something he might not do if he planned to fight the charges.

He already has surrendered rights to his business and any of the assets held by the business. A trustee overseeing his assets said he has identified nearly $1 billion in assets that are available to reimburse investors who have lost money over the last five decades.

Shortly after his arrest, Madoff offered to relinquish many of his and his wife's assets, including properties in Palm Beach and France, as well as his boats and cars.

The lawyers, however, have indicated in court documents that Madoff's $7 million Manhattan penthouse and an additional $62 million in assets should not be taken from the family because they are in his wife's name and did not result from any alleged fraud.