NEW YORK (Reuters) - Bernard Madoff’s lawyer asked a judge to sentence Wall Street’s biggest thief to a punishment of less than life in prison, saying the court should not give in to the “mob vengeance” sought by those he defrauded.
Madoff “will speak to the shame he has felt and to the pain he has caused” at his June 29 sentencing hearing, defense lawyer Ira Lee Sorkin wrote in a letter to U.S. District Judge Denny Chin made public on Tuesday.
Madoff, 71, pleaded guilty in March to running a worldwide Ponzi scheme that bilked investors out of as much as $65 billion over two decades. The maximum sentence on all 11 charges, including securities fraud and money laundering, adds up to 150 years in prison.
A 12-year prison term would be sufficient to address the issue of deterrence and to promote respect for the law, Sorkin wrote. He said a sentence of up to 20 years could also be appropriate without “disproportionately punishing” Madoff.
Madoff, a former nonexecutive chairman of the Nasdaq stock market and a once-respected money manager sought after by investors for his seemingly steady returns, has been jailed since he pleaded guilty.
His sentencing is expected to draw many of his victims, including some who want to speak at the hearing to describe the pain of losing their life savings.
Madoff victims have sent more than 100 letters to the judge describing retirement savings and college funds wiped out, mortgages unpaid and the inability to pay medical expenses. Many are elderly and have told the judge they are desperately seeking work to make ends meet.
Sorkin said many of the victim letters suggest “a desire for a type of mob vengeance,” but “it is the duty of the court to set aside the emotion and hysteria attendant to this case and render a sentence that is just and proportionate.”
A lawyer representing some of the defrauded clients seeking return of their money said Madoff should be sent to a maximum-security prison for the rest of his life.
Madoff “did worse than someone who walked into a liquor store and robbed it,” said Jerry Reisman, a partner in the New York law firm of Reisman, Peirez & Reisman.
Legal experts say they expect Madoff will be ordered to prison for 20 years or more. They say he could draw more time than Bernard Ebbers, the former chief of WorldCom Inc now serving a 25-year sentence for a massive accounting fraud.
U.S. prosecutors said in court documents that they would file their own sentencing letter to the judge on Friday.
Madoff ran a classic Ponzi scheme in which early investors were paid with deposits of newer ones, but the scheme collapsed in the faltering economy last year. He was arrested in December after his two sons told authorities he had confessed to them.
The case had led to calls for tighter regulation of money managers. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has been severely criticized for failing to uncover Madoff’s scheme despite warnings that he was running a fraud.
Sorkin said Madoff met for several hours recently with the SEC’s Inspector General, who is probing the agency’s handling of the Madoff affair. Sorkin said that Madoff’s participation was voluntary and shows that Madoff is cooperating with authorities and taking responsibility.
Anthony Sabino, a professor of law and business at St. John’s University in New York, said the defense arguments “are expected arguments and those are cogent arguments.”
However, given the enormity of Madoff’s crimes: “I think the chances of that succeeding are slim to none.”
The case is USA v Madoff 09-213 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (Manhattan)
Reporting by Martha Graybow and Grant McCool, editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Matthew Lewis