Madoff’s conversation with Walters comes as the first of three media volleys in three days featuring the notorious Ponzi schemer, who is now doing 150 years in prison.
His wife Ruth Madoff is set to speak to CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday and NBC’s “Today” on Monday, which left the third major TV network scrambling for a comparable sensational story. Madoff, however, did not appear on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in person, however, because cameras are not allowed in prison. Instead, Walters interviewed Madoff the old fashioned way, with pen and paper as the only allowed props in the medium security facility where he will doubtless spend the rest of his life.
Madoff was reportedly wearing the standard prison garb - Khaki pants, khaki short-sleeved shirt with white buttons, non-descript black sneakers with Velcro closures. As he sat across from Walters during a two-hour conversation at the Federal Correction Complex at Butler, N.C., on Oct. 14, Madoff often seemed to be trying as much as possible no to feel too much pain.
He certainly has occasion to grieve. Besides ruining many people’s lives by squandering their life savings in his investment fraud scheme, Madoff’s personal life has been beset by tragedy in the wake of the scandal. His sons stopped speaking to him, and one of them, Mark, committed suicide in 2010 on the anniversary of Madoff’s arrest.
Though he says he "can live with" the anger of people he defrauded out of billions of dollars and he is adjusting to the rhythms of life in prison, he is troubled by anger and turmoil within his own family. "Not seeing my family and knowing they hate me" is the worst thing about being in prison, he said. "I betrayed them."
He also said he is sorry to have caused pain and infamy to his grandchildren.
Madoff says he passes the time in prison by reading. He has just finished a book about, appropriately enough, Wall Street robber barons. He makes about $170 a month on various prison jobs. Based on his own account, it would seem that prison is a deliverance from the years of stress and fear under which he lived as he anticipated being discovered. As such, it may be ill-fitting to call his sentence a punishment, exactly. "I feel safer here than outside," Madoff said. "Days go by. I have people to talk to and no decisions to make. ... I know that I will die in prison. I lived the last 20 years of my life in fear. Now I have no fear -- nothing to think about because I'm no longer in control of my own life."
Though Madoff has made friends with fellow inmates, it is a paltry consolation when he is not in contact with his own family. His wife Ruth has ceased visiting and communicating with him shortly after their son Mark’s suicide. Mark’s widow, Stephanie Madoff Mack, has told ABC News she holds Bernie Madoff responsible for her son's death and, said that "I'd spit in his face" if she ever saw him again.
Ruth used to visit him every week before Mark’s death, and they spoke by telephone daily. In order to visit Butner, N.C., Ruth Madoff would drive 12 hours alone, stay at a motel overnight and drive 12 hours back to Florida, which was not an easy feat for a person who is over 70. After Mark’s suicide, Ruth asked Madoff to “let her go,” which Madoff understood.
Ruth not communicating is the hardest thing," he added. "Ruth doesn't hate me. She has no-one. It's not fair to her. She lost her first son. ... She is a devoted wife and didn't care about the money."
In his interview with Walters, he repeatedly admitted his guilt in the crimes for which he was convicted but seemed less emotionally troubled by that fact. "I understand why clients hate me," he said. "The gravy train is over. I can live with that… The average person thinks I robbed widows and orphans," he added. "I made wealthy people wealthier," he said.
Affected institutions included the Stony Brook Foundation, the James Harris Simons family foundation, Kentucky University, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, the Elie Wiesel Foundation and Steven Spielberg's Wunderkinder Foundation. Jewish federations and hospitals have lost millions of dollars, forcing some organizations to close. The Lappin Foundation was temporarily forced to halt operations because it had invested its entire $8 million endowment with Madoff.
The size of the fraud was often stated as $65 billion early in the investigation, but former SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt estimated the actual net fraud to be between $10 and $17 billion. Erin Arvedlund, who publicly questioned Bernie Madoff's reported investment performance in 2001, stated that the actual amount of the fraud might never be known, but was likely between $12 and $20 billion.
Bernie Madoff is no longer on suicide watch, but had suicidal thoughts for years after his botched suicide pact with Ruth on Christmas Eve 2008. They both attempted to kill themselves with sleeping pills but did not have enough to ingest a lethal dose.
Watch Barbara Walters recount what Madoff said to Robin Roberts (as the prison Bernie Madoff is in does not allow cameras):
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons