WASHINGTON: US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chairman Christopher Cox said the agency failed to act for almost a decade on “credible and specific allegations” of wrongdoing by Bernard Madoff, who authorities say bilked investors of as much as US$50 billion (RM178.5 billion).
Allegations dating back until at least 1999 “were repeatedly brought to the attention of SEC staff, but were never recommended to the commission for action,” Cox, 56, said in a statement on Tuesday. He announced an internal probe to review the “deeply troubling” revelations.
“He’s revolted by what he found out, but it’s also in his interest to be revolted,” said James Cox, a securities law professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who isn’t related to the SEC chairman. “He’s taken a lot of heat over SEC enforcement.”
The SEC, already faulted in connection with the collapse of Bear Stearns Cos and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc, now faces criticism for failing to detect what Madoff termed “a giant Ponzi scheme”.
Senate Banking Committee chairman Christopher Dodd on Tuesday called on the agency to explain how the “massive fraud” went undetected. Madoff, 70, was arrested last Thursday after he allegedly told his sons that his eponymous firm, founded in 1960, was no more than “a giant Ponzi scheme”, the SEC said.
Instead of wielding subpoena power to obtain information, SEC staff “relied upon information voluntarily produced by Madoff and his firm,” Cox said.
The internal review will include “all staff contact and relationships with the Madoff family and firm”, he said, and mandate the recusal any SEC employee with more than an “insubstantial personal” contact with Madoff and his family.
Eric Swanson, a former assistant director of compliance and examinations at the SEC, is married to Madoff’s niece, Shana, who was a compliance lawyer at the Madoff firm. Swanson left the SEC in August 2006 and is now the general counsel of Bats Trading Inc, the third-largest US equity exchange by trading volume.
Bats defended Swanson.
“Eric Swanson worked at the SEC for 10 years and did not participate in any inquiry of Bernard Madoff Securities or its affiliates while involved in a relationship with Shana, whom he met through her trade association work in the industry,” Bats spokesman Randy Williams said in statement. “Throughout his career, Eric has displayed the highest ethical standards and his reputation has been, and continues to be, above reproach.”
Victims of Madoff’s fraud stretch from Tokyo to Paris, encompassing foundations set up by Boston philanthropist Carl Shapiro and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and clients of global banks such as Banco Santander SA of Spain, Nomura Holdings Inc of Japan and HSBC Holdings Plc of the UK. Yeshiva University in New York lost US$110 million, mostly through hedge funds controlled by trustee J Ezra Merkin.
Cox said a review of the SEC’s records so far has exposed “complicated steps that Madoff took to deceive investors, the public and regulators”. He said Madoff “kept several sets of books and false documents, and provided false information involving his adviser activities to investors and to regulators”.
The SEC was under fire before Madoff’s fraud came to light. The collapses of investment banks Bear Stearns and Lehman this year tarnished the SEC’s reputation and lawmakers such as Dodd and Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, have questioned its vigilance in enforcing securities laws. Cox, a Republican appointed by President George W Bush, has said he will leave office at the end of the Bush administration. His term officially ends in June 2009.
SEC Inspector-General H David Kotz released reports this year critical of the agency’s conduct. He said in one that the SEC “failed to carry out its oversight” of Bear Stearns, the New York investment bank that faced collapse in March. He’s also questioned the handling of investigations by the agency’s enforcement staff.
The SEC hadn’t inspected Madoff’s investment advisory business since he registered the firm with the agency in September 2006, two people familiar with the matter said. The SEC tries to inspect advisers at least every five years and to scrutinise new firms in their first year of registration, former agency officials and securities lawyers said.
SEC examiners reviewed Madoff’s brokerage business in 2005 after an investment manager, writing to the agency, and press reports questioned the validity of his investment returns. The SEC’s enforcement division completed an investigation involving the company last year without bringing a claim.