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The New Economy

Madoff's sentence: big, but not 141,078 years

By / June 29, 2009

Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff arrives at a federal court in New York on March 12.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Newscom/File

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There are frauds – and then there's Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

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In sentencing the disgraced financier to 150 years in prison – the maximum requested – US District Judge Denny Chin made a strong statement about the risks of corporate fraud. "A message must be sent," the judge said in announcing the sentence Monday.

It's the third-longest sentence for white-collar crime, according to a compilation by Forbes magazine. Still, the sentence is six times longer than the 25 years that Bernard Ebbers received in 2005 for masterminding an $11 billion accounting fraud at WorldCom or the 24 years and four months that Jeffrey Skilling got for the felony charges in the financial collapse of Enron.

It's also far more than the 11 years that legendary gangster Al Capone got for tax evasion in 1931 or the 10-1/2 years in federal and state prisons that Charles Ponzi spent for the schemes that Mr. Madoff would copy with even greater effect.

Madoff's fraud was so deliberate – wiping out an estimated $64 billion in investor wealth – that he deserved a much longer sentence than some of the principals in other recent scandals, some legal experts say.

"It's all about the symbolism," said Paul Rosenzweig, a white-collar crime attorney in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor at George Mason University. "Justice can't be fully served in the Madoff case because there's no possibility of restitution to his victims.... [But] we did pretty darn good and he was punished."

The longest sentence for corporate fraud in the US went to Sholam Weiss in 2000 for charges related to the $450 million collapse of National Heritage Life Insurance. His sentence: 845 years.

The world's longest sentence for corporate fraud was handed down in Bangkok in 1989 to Chamoy Thipyaso, according to Guiness World Records 2006. She bilked more than 16,000 Thais in a pyramid scheme worth $204 million at the time.

Her sentence: 141,078 years.

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