Government witness says she was 'duped' by Bernie Madoff

Bernie Madoff walks down Lexington Avenue to his

Bernie Madoff walks down Lexington Avenue to his Manhattan apartment, days after he was charged in the largest investment scam in Wall Street history. Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison. (Dec. 17, 2008) (Credit: Getty Images)

A key government witness in the trial of five former aides to Bernie Madoff echoed their defense just weeks before pleading guilty in 2011 by writing to prosecutors that she was "duped" by Madoff, according to testimony in federal court in Manhattan on Thursday.

Defense lawyers had former Madoff controller Enrica Cotellessa-Pitz, who eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy and agreed to turn on her ex-colleagues in a bid for leniency, read the entire two-page single-spaced letter to jurors during cross-examination.

"You have shown me many things that came past my desk that I now realize, in retrospect, were perhaps illegal, but please know that I never had intention to commit a crime," she wrote in one passage. "I was used by Bernie and just didn't see the extent of my actions at the time. Hindsight is always 20/20."


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"When I was asked to do things for Bernie or others, I did them," she added. "I accepted the explanations given to me by Bernie because, not only was he my boss, but he was a revered financial professional . . . Is this failure on my part to perceive criminal intent, or simply human behavior?"

Former Madoff operations manager Daniel Bonventre, 66, of Manhattan, account manager Annette Bongiorno, 65, of Manhasset, computer programmer Jerome O'Hara, 50, of Malverne, and two others are accused of helping Madoff pull off his $60 billion Ponzi scheme.

Defense lawyers, who referred to Cotellessa-Pitz's letter in opening arguments, contend their clients had no idea Madoff was stealing investor money. They argue prosecutors have bullied her and other cooperators to portray as criminal the actions that seemed innocent until Madoff was exposed.

Prosecutors, however, say awareness of the Ponzi scheme is not required. They argue that the defendants enabled the scheme by performing smaller tasks they knew were wrong, such as putting phony trades on customer account statements, and altering records.

Cotellessa-Pitz, in her fourth day on the stand, has repeatedly fingered her ex-boss Bonventre for supervising the alteration of records to hide the transfer of customer money into other parts of Madoff's business and to help Madoff cheat on taxes.

But in her letter -- written three months before she pleaded guilty in December 2011 -- she took the same position he does, claiming that she bought Madoff's explanations at the time.

"I am an honest and ethical person," she wrote, "who made a grave error in trusting and believing in Bernie Madoff."

Cotellessa-Pitz, who was paid $450,000 a year when the firm collapsed in 2008, said under questioning Thursday that parts of her letter were true but parts were not -- including the claim that wrongdoing was only apparent in hindsight.

When she entered her guilty plea on Dec. 20, 2011, she said she didn't know about the Ponzi scheme, but admitted to falsifying business records and making false filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission for Madoff. She faces up to 50 years in prison.

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