Madoff case a window on Wall Street greed

Some see his behavior as an extreme example. Others suggest that investors might have been too eager for outsized returns.

Louis Lanzano/AP
Burt Ross, who lost $5 million in Bernard Madoff's swindle, exited the New York courthouse where Mr. Madoff had just been sentenced Monday. Mr. Ross said the crimes were hurtful to society in a way that transcends the dollar values lost.

The US public is responding to the Bernard Madoff case by voicing not only anger, but also anguish over broader questions of greed and betrayal in America.

Some Americans cite Mr. Madoff's behavior, which led to a massive case of investor fraud, as an extreme example of how greed got out of control on Wall Street – and how greed contributed to a financial crisis. Others offer this twist: Maybe the problem of avarice characterized the victims, too, in their eagerness for outsized investment returns. And many express concern that ethical lapses in corporate America go well beyond the realm of investments.

The scale of the fraud was big enough to land Madoff a 150-year sentence and to prompt strong reaction at a time when millions of Americans are struggling financially. Some of the feelings found a voice Monday in the person of Burt Ross, a lawyer and real estate investor who lost $5 million in Madoff's swindle.

Speaking on TV outside the New York courthouse where Madoff had just been sentenced, Mr. Ross said that the crimes were hurtful to society in a way that transcends the dollar values lost. Ross echoed the statement he had just delivered in the courtroom, as one of the victims who presented statements: "Several hundred years ago, the Italian poet Dante ... recognized fraud as the worst of sins, the ultimate evil more than any other act contrary to God’s greatest gift to mankind – love."

To Ross, Madoff betrayed the bedrock trust that allows society to function, has showed little sign of remorse, and has "earned his reputation for being the most despised person living in America today."

Not everyone shared that harsh assessment, but one Internet-based survey finds that 90 percent of respondents either agree with the judge's sentence or believe Madoff should have gotten even more years in prison. Judge Denny Chin gave the maximum sentence possible for the securities fraud and other charges to which Madoff pleaded guilty.

Some other hints of the moral lens through which America views the Madoff affair emerged before the sentencing:

• When asked which factor is more to blame in the Madoff case, 41 percent of Americans believe it was his greed, according to a Rasmussen poll in January. Another 19 percent put more emphasis on investor greed since Madoff touted investments with a much higher rate of return than other financiers were offering. And 29 percent blame a lack of government regulation. People who identify themselves as investors were slightly more likely to cite investor greed as a factor.

• In the closing months of 2008, as Americans became more aware of Madoff's Ponzi-style swindle, a stronger majority began supporting tougher financial regulation, according to CNN/Opinion Research polls at the time. Those were also months of major turbulence for banks and the stock market.

• Three Americans in four believe the moral compass of corporate America is pointing the wrong way, according a Marist College Institute for Public Opinion poll this spring, conducted with the Knights of Columbus. In the survey, a majority of executives agreed.

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