Madoff employees were puppets of 'grand master,' defense says


By Bernard Vaughan

NEW YORK, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Lawyers for five formeremployees of Bernard Madoff said on Thursday their clients weremere puppets under the spell of what one called an enigmatic"broker-dealer rockstar" and "pathological liar."

The former staffers are on trial accused of creating falserecords and transactions at Bernard Madoff Securities LLC untilits implosion in 2008. Investors lost about $19 billion in thescam, prosecutors have said.

"He was a back-office employee in a broker-dealer business,"Andrew Frisch said of his client Daniel Bonventre, 66. "Danbelieved in Madoff, like so many others."

Madoff, 75, is serving a 150-year prison sentence afterpleading guilty in 2009.

On Wednesday, prosecutors appealed to the jurors' commonsense, saying Madoff could not possibly have pulled off hisscheme, valued as high as $65 billion, without help.

Frisch, the first defense lawyer to make an openingstatement on Thursday, said Madoff's employees were spellboundby "the all-knowing, grand master of Wall Street."

Frisch said the part of Madoff's business that conducted thefraud, called investment advisory, was walled off from thebroker-dealer business in which he said Bonventre worked, whereactual trades were made.

Only Madoff and his long-time deputy, Frank DiPascali, werein on the scam, said Frisch, who repeatedly impugned regulatorsfor missing signs of the fraud.

DiPascali, who pleaded guilty, is expected to be a majorgovernment witness.

"DiPascali and Madoff told the pathological lies toregulators," said Frisch. "DiPascali and Madoff told thepathological lies to the same federal government prosecutors inthis case."

Roland Riopelle, a lawyer for Annette Bongiorno, also saidhis client had no knowledge of fraud or intent to commit fraud.

"The government simply cannot prove that she knew there wasa fraud and that she intended to hurt anyone," Riopelle said.

Bongiorno began working as Madoff's secretary at the age of19, around 1968, and advanced to eventually manage customeraccounts. She was a "young, naive high school graduate fromQueens who felt she was working at a world-class organization,"Riopelle said.

Bongiorno has no experience with the securities industry orits regulations, Riopelle said. She never controlled whichsecurities would be bought, instead entering trades into accountstatements at Madoff's behest.

"All of those decisions were made by Madoff," whom Bongiornosaw as a hero, Riopelle said.

Riopelle also contrasted Bongiorno, who kept records andstayed at the firm immediately after its implosion, withDiPascali and others who have pleaded guilty, who Rioppelle saiddestroyed or stole documents.

"That was their reaction," Riopelle said. "Not to keepeverything in a filing cabinet."

Opening statements by lawyers for the other employeescontinued on Thursday. They are former portfolio manager JoannCrupi and computer programmers Jerome O'Hara and George Perez.

The 12 jurors and eight alternate jurors generally appearedengaged, except for three, who dozed on Thursday morning, anominous portent for a trial expected to tackle complex subjectsover five months.

U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain assured a juror whosedaughter is marrying in March that she "will be walking yourdaughter down the aisle."

The case is USA v. O'Hara et al, U.S. District Court,Southern District of New York, No. 10-cr-0228.

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