NEW YORK (AP) — Bernard Madoff's former operations chief testified Tuesday that he trusted a boss who "seemed to have the respect of the entire world" during the more than four decades they worked together before Madoff confessed to orchestrating a massive Ponzi scheme.
"Now, I think he's a terribly ill man, and it's difficult to reconcile everything I knew for 40 years and what I know now," the former employee, Daniel Bonventre, told a federal jury in New York City.
He was defending himself against charges that he joined Madoff in a fraud that cheated thousands of people out of nearly $20 billion.
The 68-year-old defendant — one of five ex-Madoff employees on trial — spoke admiringly at times about Madoff even as he firmly distanced himself from his boss's crimes.
"He was generous, kind, considerate ... always seemed to have the right answer," Bonventre said. "He seemed to have the respect of the entire world."
Madoff, 75, is serving a 150-year prison sentence after admitting that the trades listed on statements mailed to investors in his private investment business were fabricated for decades.
Bonventre said he directed the legitimate side of Madoff's business that competed with the New York Stock Exchange to process trades, sometimes a half-billion daily in the company's last decade.
He said he knew nothing about Madoff's deceit, only learning about the arrest when one of Madoff's sons called him to say FBI agents and regulators were at Madoff's offices.
Raised in Brooklyn, Bonventre said he started working for Madoff in 1968 as a clerk, rising to director of operations, a title he gave himself because customers wanted to know his role.
Bonventre said Madoff was "extremely intelligent" and noted his achievements in the industry, including his stint as NASDAQ chairman.
He testified that Madoff had helped get his wife top medical care when she had heart trouble and recounted other examples of his generosity.
"He appeared to be the most magnanimous, caring individual," Bonventre said. "... Amazing to watch, a very empathetic individual. At least that's how he appeared."
Bonventre recalled celebrities, members of Congress and wealthy individuals at the company's offices, all waiting to see Madoff.
Bonventre said Madoff cursed and screamed at him "with some frequency, at the drop of a hat," and considered office humor making fun of the weight, height, clothing and hair of his workers.
Madoff's jokes, Bonventre recalled, "could be cruel."
He said his side of the business had $700 million in assets, leading him to believe Madoff was worth more than $1 billion.
In hindsight, he said, he suspects Madoff lied to him every day.