Despised financial fraud Bernie Madoff may have one last scam in him. And this one may be the biggest and most infuriating of all. He may sleaze his way out of rotting away his last days in prison. Loud bells and whistles went off that that could happen when Madoff suddenly dropped any pretense of a court fight and said he'd plead guilty to every fraud, perjury, and embezzlement charge that the Feds could slap on him.
For the official record Madoff will be hit with an 11-count indictment. The maximum penalty is 150 years in prison. But that's just on paper. Bells sounded louder that Madoff could evade his full prison due when U.S. District Judge Denny Chin who presumably will sentence Madoff said that he'd sharply limit the number of Madoff victims who get to shake their fist in the swindler's face and tell him what a rat he is during an upcoming court hearing. Bells sounded even louder when Chin said that he would take weeks maybe even months to sentence Madoff. Meanwhile Madoff will continue to piddle about in his $7 million dollar Manhattan penthouse.
But the Madoff bells really went off the decibel chart when prosecutors said that they'd tap Madoff for $170 billion in criminal forfeitures. That sounds impressive but it may not be anywhere near the amount of money that Madoff stole, squandered, or stashed away in vaults and mattresses, in dummy accounts, and with friends, associates, wives and mistresses. If Madoff does indeed dupe the government hangman, it won't be much of a surprise.
Prosecutors in recent years have arguably gotten much tougher on corporate chiselers than in years past. Federal sentencing commission stats show that white collar crooks are likely to do more time for fraud, embezzlement, forgery and counterfeiting than street crooks serve for possession of drugs or firearms. But that tells only part of the story.
The sentencing commission study did not break down the numbers of those sentenced by the size or scope of the crime or the wealth of the individual offender. Most of those that do time for white collar crimes are not the rich and famous, corporate big shots, but relative small fry cheats. The rub is that the judge ultimately decides what the sentence will be. The sentences they mete out in most cases are lighter than the maximum sentences allowed, sometimes much lighter.
The Madoff case is a near textbook example of the deferential treatment that judges and government prosecutors give to fat cat white collar crooks versus that given to the small fry white collar criminals and street criminals. Madoff was granted and easily made bail, is confined to house arrest, kept his penthouse's luxury furnishings, and had the court give a nod to his age and health considerations. Madoff's attorney have sought and got delays, and thwarted prosecutor's requests to have his bail revoked when they found he was sneaking jewelry to his relatives. All the while, the court and prosecutors have kept his legion of accusers and victims at arms length. And now Judge Chin has set no date for sentencing.
Madoff almost certainly will do some jail time. How much is anybody's guess. It's that guess that gives hint that Madoff may have one more scam up his sleeve, and that's scamming his sentence.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).