COMMENTARY

Local investors in no mood to toast Bernie Madoff

  • Share
Harry Heller Falk was watching TV when he first saw the news about Bernard Madoff.

He knew the name instantly. His family, owners of the Heller Bros. citrus packing and shipping business that dates back to 1925 in Winter Garden, had been investors with Madoff for years.

"I was shocked, surprised and concerned," he said.

The damage, Falk told me, was not catastrophic. His family is well diversified, and the money given to Madoff was "not concentrated in such a way to cause a major problem, but still enough to feel bad about."

"Make no bones about it, we're unhappy. Nobody likes to lose money," he said, especially considering some was invested for the Heller Brothers Foundation, a charitable giving organization set up by the family.

The Central Florida clients of Madoff, who allegedly ran a $50 billion Ponzi scheme that makes Lou Pearlman's phony investment plot look like child's play, don't fit the splashy image of celebrities or the ┬┐ber rich associated with the case.

They are everyday, hardworking people. Successful, yes, but never before mentioned in the same circles as DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who is said to have lost millions, or actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, who reportedly lost as much as $10 million.

Last week, when the list of potential Madoff clients was filed in court, the names -- big and small -- became public. The list isn't entirely accurate. I talked with some on the list who aren't sure why.

Regis Simasek, who runs an Orlando accounting firm, said his former firm Simasek and Whitley was listed, but that it no longer exists and "we certainly didn't lose any money."

For others, the list simply irritated the wound suffered when Madoff was arrested in December and many realized that their investments were lost.

"I was dealing with it fine and then the list came out online and it's public," said Paulette Geller, who is retired from the Winter Park Health Foundation and a longtime advocate for senior health issues. "But even before that, I had made the decision not to keep it secret. I know that I can't be the kind of donor that I used to be."

Geller, who lives in Maitland, said she is thankful that only a portion of her and her late husband's retirement savings were invested with Madoff.

The local Madoff investors whom I talked with had several things in common: they were introduced to Madoff's fund through a family member or close friend, they now marvel at how legitimate the monthly statements and trading confirmations from Madoff appeared and they said they would be far less trusting in the future.

"It really is a broken trust, and it causes financial pain, emotional pain; it makes it far more difficult to trust again in the same way that you trusted in the past," Falk said.

The investors said they had little hope of recovering much of what they lost. The criminal and civil cases against Madoff could take years to unfold.

It seems reasonable for federal lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow victims of the scheme to amend their taxable income further back than the standard three years allowed under the current rules.

If they could amend their incomes for a longer period of time, say 10 years, then at least they could recoup a larger portion of the taxes they paid on what they now know were phantom earnings. So far, such a rule change has not taken place.

For now, seeing Madoff in jail rather than under house arrest in his $7 million New York apartment, would bring at least some satisfaction.

"He doesn't appear to have any conscience about this, no remorse," said Geller, who recalls meeting Madoff through family connections at parties in Palm Beach, where he also has a home.

"The first toast at the table was always to Bernie," Geller said. "I was amazed at how many people were involved because everybody at the table obviously had a Madoff account. I wonder what they do now? They probably can't afford to buy a drink to toast."


Beth Kassab can be reached at bkassab@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5448. Read her blog at orlandosentinel.com/thebottomline.
  • Share
Baltimore's top properties for July [Pictures]

Baltimore's top properties for July [Pictures]

Find out where Baltimore's most expensive homes on the market are and how much they are worth. Here's a list of most pricey new properties...

New cars for 2015

New cars for 2015

Dealers are cutting prices on 2014 models to make room for 2015 models, many of which go on sale this summer. Here's a look at redesigned or...

Nielsen names 14 breakthrough consumer products

14 breakthrough consumer products

Here is market research company Nielsen's list of 14 breakthrough consumer innovation products, based on products introduced in 2012 that...

Which stores have recently opened or closed in the Baltimore region?

Which stores have recently opened or closed in Baltimore?

Keep up with the latest news about store openings and closings in the Baltimore area.

PHOTO GALLERIES