Yesterday, following Bernie Madoff's sentencing hearing, his wife Ruth Madoff released a statement in which she tried to firmly separate herself from her husband. "Like everyone else, I feel betrayed and confused," Mrs. Madoff wrote, claiming that she had no prior knowledge of her husband's crimes. According to Mrs. Madoff, upon her discovery of his actions, she decided that "my life with the man I have known for over 50 years was over."
The success of this move, the latest in her attempts to distance herself from her scofflaw spouse, hinges on the question of integrity and ethics. If the public believes in Mrs. Madoff's integrity, then it's completely acceptable that she got off pretty much scot free; if not, then she becomes further evidence of the cracks in the American legal system, which has allowed her to keep $2.5 million in cash under an asset forfeiture agreement she and Bernie Madoff reached with prosecutors.
The trouble is that, ethically, Ruth has more than a few problems. To begin with, the $80 million in assets that she desperately tried to claim were clearly other people's money. Even if, as she states, she was previously unaware of the nature of her husband's business, she was still trying to claim the cash earlier this month. By the end of March, there was no way that she could not have known where the money came from. For that matter, the massive $2.5 million payout that Federal prosecutors left her with came out of the pockets of Bernie's investors, including the Elie Wiesel foundation and Yeshiva University.
Admittedly, not much is known about Ruth Madoff. Still, anybody looking for a measure of her integrity might do well to take a peek at her cookbook, The Great Chefs of America Cook Kosher. Published in 1996, the book lists Madoff and her friend Idee Schoenheim as executive editors. In truth, however, the work was done in its entirety by Karen MacNeil, a food expert who has been quoted as saying that Madoff "was interested in having her name on something that would allow for some sort of fun." McNeil is listed as an editor.
In the grand scheme of things, claiming authorship of a ghost-written book is a minor offense; certainly, it pales beside the crimes of Ruth's husband. However, a case could be made that someone who will lie about the small things may be inclined to lie about the big ones, and that someone willing to take credit for another person's work has exploitative tendencies.
And then, of course, there is the fact that Ruth Madoff worked beside her husband when he began his business almost fifty years ago and still occupied an office in his company as of December 2008. As of 1998, she was claiming to be "director of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities." Granted, this is circumstantial evidence and doesn't prove that she actually knew what Bernie was doing. However, it's hard to believe that the thoughtful author of Ruth's recent letter could be completely ignorant of how Bernie was making his dough.
It's easy to understand why Ruth is throwing Bernie under the bus. Since 1988, the Federal correctional system has not allowed parole, which means that her husband will certainly die behind bars. Even with her remaining millions, Ruth is going to have to adjust to a much harder life and, well, a girl's got to take care of herself. If she has assets hidden somewhere, it will be a long time before she'll be able to get her hands on them; in the meantime, plebeian activities like going to the grocery store and dealing with hoi polloi will be a daily part of her new life. Under the circumstances, Ruth's only real choice is to dump her husband like a ton of wet garbage.