NEW YORK (AP) — Defense lawyers in the first criminal trial to result from imprisoned financier Bernard Madoff's mammoth fraud described him to jurors as a manipulative, evil genius too shrewd to let his lowly office workers in on his crimes even as he showered them with huge salaries and impressive titles.
The lawyers for five former Madoff employees took their turns Thursday introducing the case to a jury in federal court in Manhattan beginning with attorney Andrew Frisch on behalf of Daniel Bonventre, the onetime director of operations at Madoff's firm.
"Dan thought he was living the American dream," Frisch said of his 66-year-old client, who stood as his lawyer introduced him to the jury. "Dan believed Madoff, like so many others."
"Celebrities, movie stars, Sandy Koufax. They all believed in Bernie Madoff," said Eric Breslin, an attorney for JoAnn Crupi, 52, an account manager for Madoff for 25 years. "He literally had millionaires eating out of his hand, begging him to invest their money. ... The world was taken in. The government will not be able to prove JoAnn Crupi knew any better."
After a break on Friday, testimony will begin Monday. Breslin said that Madoff, 75, who is serving a 150-year prison sentence, will not appear in court but that "his shadow will be in this courtroom every day."
Roland Riopelle, attorney for Madoff's longtime secretary, Annette Bongiorno, 64, said his client, too, was taken in by "a kind of rock star in the securities industry."
"The government simply cannot prove that she knew there was a fraud and intended to hurt anyone," he said of a woman who started working for Madoff in the 1960s when she was 19 years old.
The workers all lost their jobs after Madoff revealed in December 2008 that statements he had mailed to thousands of investors just days earlier reporting nearly $68 billion in assets were bogus and that only about $300 million remained. Clients lost their original investment of nearly $20 billion.
A court-appointed trustee has recovered much of the money lost in the fraud by forcing those who received payouts over the years in the Ponzi scheme to return billions of dollars.
The defense openings came a day after a prosecutor accused the former employees of being crucial components of a fraud that remained hidden for decades.
Defense lawyers described Madoff as godlike at his firm, a former NASDAQ chairman who hid his heartless, corrupt and greedy side with extraordinary generosity. They said he was a swaggering Wall Street icon, a control freak, a great liar, a genius manipulator, extremely demanding, eccentric and temperamental, private and secretive, domineering and controlling.
Attorney Gordon Mehler, representing computer programmer Jerome O'Hara, 50, warned jurors to beware of the government's star witness and Madoff's former finance chief, Frank DiPascali, saying he was such an architect of the fraud that his blaming other Madoff employees would be like "the Big Bad Wolf getting on the witness stand and condemning Little Red Riding Hood."
He said Madoff duped O'Hara and another computer programmer on trial, George Perez, 47.