NEW YORK - A court-appointed trustee unravelling Bernard Madoff's massive fraud signalled Thursday that he may go after the disgraced financier's family to pay victim claims, which have grown to almost 9,000.
Legal action against the family "is a matter that's being looked into," trustee Irving Picard said during a telephone conference call with reporters.
Picard already has filed lawsuits in bankruptcy court in Manhattan to try to force hedge funds and other large investors to return US$10.1 billion in fictitious profits paid by Madoff's firm, alleging they should have known about the fraud. As of Wednesday, there were 8,848 from customers claiming losses, he said.
"I have a duty to investigate and to go to court to recover from persons and entities who received more than their share," he said. "In actual fact, persons who are subject to these recovery efforts actually received money stolen from others."
Stephen Harbeck, head of Securities Investor Protection Corp. or SIPC, also vowed to get tough with anyone else in on the scheme, including Madoff family members.
"Wrongdoers should pay for their wrongdoing," Harbeck, who's working with Picard, said during the call.
In court filings, Picard has alleged that Madoff's inner circle - his wife, two sons, brother and key employees - wantonly used investor money to fuel a lavish lifestyle. Madoff has claimed the others were in the dark, and their lawyers also have denied that they were complicit.
Madoff, 70, pleaded guilty in March to charges his secretive investment advisory operation was a massive Ponzi scheme - what Picard called "the largest and most complex securities fraud in history."
In his plea, Madoff admitted that he never invested the billions of dollars given to him by thousands of clients. Instead, he used the money from new investors to pay returns to existing clients.
The investors were told in phoney statements from last November that their accounts had grown to nearly $65 billion. Picard said Thursday that so far he has only identified about $1 billion in assets that can be used to help cover claims.
The trustee said he and his lawyers were hoping to raise more money soon by negotiating settlements with larger investors who came out ahead. But he cautioned that fund recovery could be an uphill battle.
"In some cases, the money is in foreign countries," he said. "In some cases, the money has been expended by the recipients. In some cases, the recipients are still holding the money."
SIPC - authorized by Congress to guarantee brokerage accounts for up to $500,000 - has stepped in to cover a portion of the claims. It expects to have paid $61.4 million to 125 people claiming $368.3 million in losses by the end of next week, Harbeck said.
Madoff, who has been jailed, faces up to 150 years in prison at his sentencing June 29. He had originally been due back in court on June 16, but the judge changed the sentencing date on Thursday without explanation.