Piece by piece, federal marshals were tearing down Bernie and Ruth Madoff's empire of ill-gotten wealth.
By June 5, the government had frozen the couple's funds and occupied their homes, seizing the fruits of Bernie Madoff's massive fraud: their cars, their boats, their piano, even their silverware.
That's when Palm Beach County wrote the couple a $13,800 check - a rebate, handing back taxes the Madoffs paid on their Palm Beach mansion.
The county had little choice, experts say: The Madoffs' property had been overvalued, so they'd paid too much in taxes and legally were owed the money.
Now, Ruth Madoff wants the check recut, with her husband's name removed - despite a deal with prosecutors in which she promised to give up all but $2.5 million of her fortune.
The deal, relinquishing the rest of her money to the government so it can be redistributed to victims, explicitly mentions tax refunds. It was signed at the end of June, after the county refund was issued.
This is the latest development in a scandal that ruined many of Bernie Madoff's investors, who suddenly learned in December that he had taken all they had given and turned it into a mirage.
"Do I think she should keep the $13,800?" said Ronnie Sue Ambrosino, a Madoff victim who runs the Web site bernardmadoffvictims.org. "Absolutely not! Absolutely not. She's been forced to give up all her other assets, and that money should be put back in the pot."
But Ruth Madoff recently sent the uncashed refund check back to Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon, with a letter dated Aug. 23 asking that it be reissued in her name alone.
When asked for his opinion on the letter, Richard Rampell, an expert on Florida tax law, had only one guess for why she might have written it.
"She wants to have unfettered access to the money, clearly," said Rampell, a managing partner of Palm Beach's Rampell & Rampell.
With the check also in her husband's name, Ruth Madoff would need his signature to deposit it into anything except a joint bank account, Rampell said - difficult, with Bernie Madoff in prison and his accounts impounded.
But if she simply wanted to give prosecutors the money, she could have signed the check and handed it over, Rampell suggested, letting them worry about getting Bernie's signature.
Ruth Madoff's attorney, Peter Chavkin, said in an e-mail that the money will go "where it is supposed to go" and that Madoff had consulted with lawyers before writing the letter.
He added that Madoff is "obliged to assist the government in recovering any covered assets."
Still, the request seems "very odd," said Professor Michelle Bertolini of the University of Hartford, a Florida lawyer and certified public accountant who taught at Florida Atlantic University until this summer.
"Was she trying to do this so she could give the government $13,000, or was she trying to go and cash this and make it disappear?" Bertolini said, adding that she agreed with Rampell's assessment of the situation.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.
Either way, Madoff won't be able to get the check reissued, Gannon said.
Gannon said the law requires her to write rebate checks to whoever paid the original bill - and in this case, both Madoffs' names were on the original check.
The rebate's roots stretch to last September, when an attorney for Ruth Madoff challenged the 2008 value that the county had placed on her waterfront mansion on North Lake Way.
When a county appraiser examined the case, he agreed, said John Thomas of the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser's office. Her house was on a smaller plot of land than the surrounding homes, which the assessment did not consider, he said.
On Dec. 1, the appraiser agreed to drop his 2008 assessment of the five-bedroom, seven-bathroom house's worth from $9.4 million to $8.5 million, chopping about 9 percent off her $151,000 tax bill, Thomas said. In return, Madoff's attorney dropped the appeal.
Ten days later, federal agents arrested Bernie Madoff, 70, accusing him of running the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.
Six months passed. Bernie Madoff pleaded guilty. Federal marshals seized the couple's possessions, including the Palm Beach home, though Ruth Madoff is still the owner listed in county property records.
And in Palm Beach County, about 20 days before Ruth Madoff signed the agreement with prosecutors, the slow wheels of government finished turning, quietly printing a check for $13,821.74 with the Madoffs' names on it.Gannon said her office didn't even notice.
"My employees - they don't even look at who the checks are" being written to, she said, noting that they automatically print the thousands of rebate checks.
Ambrosino, the Madoff victim, said she found the appeal's timing suspicious.
"If you had billions of dollars at your disposal, would you file for a $13,000 adjustment?" she asked. "Or if you knew the end was near, wouldn't you pull in every ace card that you have?"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun