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NEW YORK, Feb 18 (Reuters) - In an unusual move, Bernard Madoff's former back-office director took the witness stand in his own defense on Tuesday, telling a federal jury that he had no idea his boss was operating a Ponzi scheme until the day Madoff was arrested in December 2008.
Daniel Bonventre, one of five former Madoff aides on trial in federal court in Manhattan who are accused of aiding in the fraud, said he remained in the dark throughout his 40 years at Madoff's firm.
"Did Mr. Madoff lie to you over the years?" Bonventre's lawyer, Andrew Frisch, asked.
"Probably every day," Bonventre replied.
It is relatively unusual for criminal defendants to testify in their own defense, making Bonventre's testimony a calculated risk. The decision likely shifts the jury's focus to Bonventre's credibility, rather than the prosecution's burden of proof, said Robert Anello, a white-collar defense lawyer not involved in the case.
"Many jurors in white-collar cases are waiting to hear from the defendant," said Anello, a partner at Morvillo Abramowitz Grand Iason & Anello. "The natural inclination is, 'This is a gentleman who is articulate, who can operate a business - why can't he tell us his story?'"
As recently as last week, Bonventre told U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain that he did not wish to testify, but in a letter sent to Swain over the weekend, Frisch said his client had changed his mind.
It remains unclear whether the other four defendants - portfolio managers Annette Bongiorno and Joann Crupi and computer programmers Jerome O'Hara and George Perez - will also testify.
All five have said they were duped by Madoff into believing the investment business was legitimate. Madoff is serving a 150-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to running the Ponzi scheme, which cost investors an estimated $17 billion in principal losses.
Under questioning from Frisch on Tuesday, Bonventre said Madoff seemed to be a caring, thoughtful boss who took care of his employees' families, including hiring a number of their relatives.
Madoff arranged for Bonventre's first wife to be transferred from another hospital to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan after she was diagnosed with cancer, he testified. Later, Bonventre said, Madoff gave him the home number for his personal cardiologist when Bonventre's current wife, Barbara, had chest pains.
Madoff's doctor discovered an aneurysm and scheduled surgery, Bonventre said.
After Madoff's confession, he said, he wondered whether that generosity of spirit was all part of Madoff's con, a form of manipulation to create a false persona.
"I think he was a terribly ill man," Bonventre said. "It's difficult to reconcile everything I knew about him for 40 years and everything I know now. I could live to be 100, and I'm not sure I would have a better answer."
At times, Bonventre said, he questioned certain aspects of Madoff's business that seemed unusual or nonsensical, but he said Madoff's explanations were always plausible.
"During your years at the firm, did it ever dawn on you that Mr. Madoff was running a fraud?" Frisch asked.
"No," Bonventre said.
Government lawyers have yet to question Bonventre.
The case is USA v. O'Hara et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 10-cr-0228.