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SEC Ignored Credible Tips About Madoff, Chief Says

SEC chief Christopher Cox has ordered an internal review.
SEC chief Christopher Cox has ordered an internal review. (Brendan Smialowski - Bloomberg News)

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By Binyamin Appelbaum and David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The nation's chief securities regulator said yesterday it was "deeply troubling" that his agency had failed to catch perhaps the largest Ponzi scheme in history despite "credible and specific allegations . . . repeatedly brought to the attention of SEC staff" regarding the activities of Bernard L. Madoff.

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In making this unusually frank statement, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox announced he had ordered an internal investigation.

His remarks followed a day of growing demands for the agency to explain how it missed Madoff's alleged $50 billion fraud, including the apparent failure of regulators to spot numerous and massive inconsistencies during an investigation of his company that ended quietly in 2007.

Cox offered the beginnings of answers. He said the agency inappropriately discounted allegations, that staff did not relay concerns to the agency's leadership and that examiners relied on documents volunteered by Madoff rather than seeking subpoenas to obtain critical information. And Cox said the agency's inspector general would investigate whether personal relationships between Madoff's family and SEC staff played a role in the failed oversight.

"Our initial findings have been deeply troubling," Cox said. "I am gravely concerned by the apparent failures over at least a decade to thoroughly investigate these allegations or at any point to seek formal authority to pursue them."

The statement came as criticism of the SEC grew from legislators and former regulators for failing to check a number of Wall Street frauds and excesses that have been exposed by the economic slowdown.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, was among those demanding a fuller accounting yesterday.

"Senator Dodd is concerned not only about the people caught up in this reported scheme who may have been misled, but also about how such a massive fraud could have gone undetected," spokeswoman Kate Szostak said. "Senator Dodd is seeking more information from the SEC about this case."

H. David Kotz, the inspector general of the SEC, has issued a number of scathing reports this year that have ruffled feathers and called for disciplinary actions against senior officials. "We received the chairman's request to open an investigation," Kotz said last night. "We intend to do so immediately and plan to conduct a through, comprehensive investigation and issue a report as soon as possible."

Among the issues investigators will consider is the extent of relationships between Madoff's family and regulators.

Madoff's niece, Shana Madoff, who worked as a compliance lawyer for his company, is married to Eric Swanson, a former SEC official who had been involved in the agency's examinations of Madoff's operations. Swanson's current employer, Bats Trading, said the relationship began in 2006. Swanson left the SEC shortly after and the couple was married in 2007, Bats said.

Bernard Madoff mentioned the marriage last year as he boasted about his close ties with regulators while speaking at a conference in New York. The Washington Post reviewed a digital video of the speech.


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