NEW YORK (AP) — Imprisoned financier Bernard Madoff's longtime secretary defended herself from the witness stand Monday, telling a Manhattan jury about a 40-year career working unwittingly alongside a historic Ponzi scheme that began when she recognized through Madoff's stutter on her first day that he wanted a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch.
"He gave me a thumbs up and said: 'You'll do really good here,'" Annette Bongiorno recalled as she became the second defendant to testify among five defendants charged with helping Madoff cheat thousands of investors of nearly $20 billion. She said she could figure out what Madoff wanted through his stutter because a family member had one, too.
But she insisted repeatedly under questioning from her attorney, Roland Riopelle, that her ability to decipher unspoken words stopped short of realizing Madoff's fraud in an office where Madoff, Bongiorno and their colleagues often repeated his mantra never to speak of his operations and his work on behalf of clients.
The fraud collapsed in December 2008 when the former Nasdaq chairman confessed to family and the FBI that his seemingly endless ability to turn double-digit profits for his investors was phony and his accounts were nearly empty as scores of investors frightened by the economic collapse demanded redemptions. He is serving a 150-year prison sentence.
Just after Bongiorno went to the witness stand with a water bottle in hand, her lawyer asked her if she knew her longtime boss was running a Ponzi scheme.
"Absolutely not!" she said firmly.
In a rambling style of speech that frequently went far beyond the question asked, the 65-year-old Bongiorno described her Brooklyn upbringing and how disapproving her father was when she began arriving home late at age 19 in 1968 from her new job at Madoff's fledgling firm. She said her parents changed their attitude, though, when Madoff and his wife visited them.
At times, Bongiorno seemed starry-eyed as she described Madoff, saying at one point: "I loved Bernie. He was like my big brother."
She was teary when she described Madoff finding her mother a geriatric center bed at a facility that supposedly had none. Her mother's health improved enough that she could spend three more months at home with family before she died.
Bongiorno said she asked him how he pulled it off and he told her: "I made them an offer they couldn't refuse."
She said she was so inspired by his kindness that she cut out a picture of him in a tuxedo from 1993, mounted it on cardboard, and wrote "My hero" on it, keeping it on her desk until he was arrested.
Riopelle asked a series of questions about her practice of reconciling trades after they were executed. She said she believed they took place on the company's trading floor where about 50 to 60 traders worked.
"When did you begin entering trades after they occurred," Riopelle asked.
"Almost always," she answered.
"Did anyone suggest this was a problem?" Riopelle continued.
"No," she said.
Bongiorno's testimony came on the same day that Madoff's former director of operations concluded testimony in which he insisted as well that he knew nothing of the fraud.
The trial began in early October. She was to resume testifying on Tuesday.
Associated Press Writer Tom Hays contributed to this report.