Hanging with Bernard Madoff (it wasn’t memorable)

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I spent some time with alleged mega-scammer Bernard Madoff last fall. And ever since I got the WSJ news alert e-mail Thursday afternoon about his arrest, I’ve been thinking I should write something about my experiences. My problem has been that I can barely remember them. Madoff was kind of a cipher: Nice enough guy, seemed reasonably smart, said absolutely nothing of interest.

The reason we met was that I was moderating a panel discussion on “The Future of the Stock Market” at the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Madoff was a friend of one of the guys who runs Philoctetes, and he had helped put together the panel. He called me up a few weeks before the event and asked me to come over to discuss what we should talk about. So I walked to the Lipstick Building on Third Ave., took the elevator up to his office, and we chatted for about half an hour. I don’t remember a word of the conversation. Then he gave me a tour of his firm’s sleek and sparsely populated trading floor, and told me a little about how his market making business had evolved. I don’t remember any mention of the asset management arm that has caused all the trouble.

Then we did the panel discussion. I remember Josh Stampfli, who ran Madoff’s automated market-making group, saying some really interesting things about the rationality of markets or the lack thereof. But I don’t remember a word Madoff said. And while Philoctetes videotaped the whole event and had it transcribed, it has now removed all that incriminating evidence from its Website (and from YouTube). I might start to wonder if Bernard Madoff actually existed, but I think a lot of suddenly poorer rich people out there will be able to attest to the fact that he did.

Update The video is back up. Philoctetes had taken it down because people were leaving nasty comments, not because there was anything incriminating in it (other than perhaps my remark that Madoff Securities was “one of those really important financial institutions that doesn’t show up in headlines”). But they decided it seemed weird not to make the video available, so now all the world can see it again. All 127 minutes and 36 glorious seconds of it.

Update 2 I’m watching it now. Madoff’s description of the early days of his firm and of Nasdaq (it starts around minute 10) is pretty interesting. Nothing about Ponzi schemes, though.

Update 3 Incriminating evidence! It’s around 111:50 on the tape (I just randomly skipped ahead to it):

I’m very close with the regulators, so I’m not trying to say what they do is bad. As a matter of fact, my niece just married one.

Update 4 CNBC has discovered the video.

Update 5 I’ve now posted an abridged video of the event.