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Cost of Madoff bankruptcy tops $1 billion

Unwinding the biggest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history hasn’t been cheap.

Six years after Bernard Madoff’s fraud collapsed, the cost of liquidating his defunct investment advisory firm to repay thousands of victims has topped $1 billion, though the con man’s former customers aren’t footing the bill.

The fees, paid by the industry-backed Securities Investor Protection Corp., which is managing the case, have financed a team of lawyers who this week surpassed $10 billion in recoveries for victims, or almost 60 percent of the principal that vanished after Madoff’s arrest in December 2008.

Irving Picard, the bankruptcy lawyer who’s leading the effort as trustee for Madoff’s company, included the new fee total in an interim report posted Thursday on his website. A bankruptcy judge in Manhattan regularly approves the fees, sometimes over the objections of victims’ groups.

The victims, who believed their investments were used to buy securities, have been paid almost $6 billion by Picard since he started distributing the recovered funds. The last distribution, about $349 million, was in May.

The fraud, which prosecutors said started as early as the 1960s, involved millions of pages of fake trades and account statements for thousands of customers. Picard used hundreds of professionals to unravel the swindle and determine who held valid claims and who needed to be sued, court records show.

“Our investigations, dissection and reconstruction of the fraud have proven invaluable in identifying how the Madoff Ponzi scheme began and lasted as long as it did,” David Sheehan, the trustee’s lead lawyer, said in an email.

Picard, of Baker & Hostetler in New York, recouped the cash through hundreds of lawsuits and settlements with Madoff’s customers and banks that benefited from the scheme, even if they weren’t aware of it.

Many of the cases have triggered appeals, some to the U.S. Supreme Court. While $6 billion has been paid out, billions more is being held in reserve until lawsuits are resolved that will determine who gets what.

The legal team passed the $10 billion recovery mark on Nov. 17 after reaching a deal with two funds that funneled money to the fraud, Primeo Fund and Herald Fund, both based in the Cayman Islands. The funds agreed to pay a total of $497 million to end lawsuits over their withdrawals from Madoff’s firm.

The trustee has also sued dozens of individual customers who withdrew more money from their accounts than they deposited, to repay net losers. Madoff’s lifelong friend, Edward Blumenfeld, a New York real estate developer who built a fortune by investing with the con man for decades, agreed to a settlement worth $62 million to end the lawsuit against him – a deal approved by the court Nov. 18.

The trustee has said his goal is to return 100 percent or more of the $17.5 billion in lost principal.

“It’s obscene,” Helen Davis Chaitman, a lawyer representing some victims in the case, said in an email about the fees. Chaitman, who has frequently challenged Picard in court, said federal prosecutors recovered most of the cash for victims and Picard should pay out more than just principal.

A federal jury in Manhattan in March found five former Madoff employees guilty of aiding his fraud for decades by creating fake trading documents and account statements.

They were accused of targeting thousands of retirees, wealthy investors, charities and even family and friends, and getting rich in the process. The five ex-workers are scheduled to be sentenced next month.

Madoff, 76, pleaded guilty to fraud in 2009 and is serving a 150-year sentence at a federal prison in Butner. At least seven other people have pleaded guilty to roles in the scheme, including his brother, Peter Madoff, who is serving a 10-year term.