In Madoff asset search, wife's worth adds intrigue

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Her husband is the one accused of the biggest fraud in Wall Street history, but Ruth Madoff’s name also keeps coming up in investigators’ pursuit of assets linked to Bernard Madoff.

Bernard Madoff is escorted in a vehicle from Federal Court in New York, January 5, 2009. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

From mailing more than $1 million worth of jewelry and watches in violation of a court order, to withdrawing $15.5 million before his December 11 arrest and an attempt to separate $70 million in her assets from his purported fraud, Ruth Madoff has added intrigue to the case.

Married to the accused swindler for nearly 50 years, Ruth Madoff played no formal role at her husband’s company and has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but the revelations have raised eyebrows among those following the Madoff case.

“Where does Mrs Madoff get the millions of dollars from? Mrs Madoff was not known as the genius on Wall Street independently,” said Michael Shapiro, a partner at Wall Street law firm Carter, Ledyard and Milburn LLP, which represents some of the once-respected investment manager’s former customers.

“What did she do to earn that money? I’m wondering what her explanation will be.”

Authorities said Madoff, 70, confessed to running a $50 billion scheme over many years on his own, bilking investors all over the world. He has not formally appeared in court to answer one criminal charge of securities fraud.

The latest mention of his wife is a court order in the civil case on Monday in which her lawyer asserts that about $70 million in her name is unrelated to the purported fraud and separate from his assets.

The Madoffs’ lawyer, Ira Sorkin, said “we stand by what is in the order” and declined further comment.

Last month, the Massachusetts state regulator said Ruth Madoff withdrew $15.5 million in the weeks before Madoff’s arrest from Cohmad Securities Corp, a brokerage partly owned by Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC.Monday’s filing in Manhattan federal court said she had $45 million in municipal bonds at Cohmad.

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In December, Madoff and his wife mailed jewelry and watches to family and friends in violation of a court order freezing his assets. Their lawyer successfully argued in court in January that Madoff could remain out on bail and under house arrest. Ruth Madoff also agreed to a voluntary asset freeze.

She has a degree in psychology and another in nutrition and was co-author of a 1996 cookbook called “The Great Chefs of America Cook Kosher: Over 175 Recipes From America’s Greatest Restaurants.”

The book was not a big seller and The New York Times reported in January that the book’s editor, food and wine expert Karen MacNeil, said she was paid to write all of it.

Legal experts say that, if Bernard Madoff is convicted, prosecutors would need to show his wife’s assets were earned through his business or that she was directly involved, in order to seize them.

“We think that it is almost certain that the investors will be able to recover Ruth Madoff’s assets,” said Brad Friedman, a partner at law firm Milberg LLP, which represents Madoff customers.

“It is fairly clear that Ruth Madoff was one of Bernie’s closest confidantes. It is absurd to suggest that the Madoffs will be able to protect tens of millions of dollars taken from the many people who they have left penniless, most of whom were not wealthy, but were retirement-age people who had invested their life savings.”

The Madoffs surrendered their passports to U.S. prosecutors and put up the penthouse apartment where he lives under house arrest to secure $10 million bail along with homes in Palm Beach, Florida and Montauk, New York.

Lawyer Kaufman believes defrauded investors also will have claims to recover money from other Madoff family members, including Madoff’s two sons and his brother, who all worked at the firm.

A court-appointed trustee is working to round up as much money and property to liquidate as possible from Madoff to pay former customers whose claims of being defrauded are verified.

On February 20, David Sheehan, a lawyer for trustee Irving Picard told a meeting of creditors that his staff was “looking at every Madoff family member and every insider associated with the Madoff firm” as part of that effort.

So far, less than $1 billion has been recovered, while about 2,350 claims are being considered by the Securities Investor Protection Corp, a nonprofit established by Congress in 1970 to keep a reserve fund for the customers of failed brokerages.

The civil case is Securities and Exchange Commission v. Madoff et al 08-10791 U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

Additional reporting by Martha Graybow; Editing by Andre Grenon