Bernard Madoff's former secretary, Annette Bongiorno, said she was clueless about his massive Ponzi scheme and saw him as a "hero" during her 40 years at his firm as she testified in her own defense Monday at the fraud trial of five Madoff aides.
"I loved Bernie," the diminutive Bongiorno told jurors in federal court in Manhattan, describing acts of kindness like his help securing a geriatric-care bed for her mother when she suffered a stroke in Florida. "He was like my big brother. I admired and respected him."
But she said she had an associate throw out a photo of Madoff on her desk on which she had written "My Hero" when his scam was revealed, and insisted that while she helped prepare phony account statements for investors, she was not part of his $19 billion scam.
"Absolutely not," she said in response to questions from her lawyer. " . . . Never knowingly."
Bongiorno, 65, of Manhasset, a stenographer credited with more than $9 million from investments with Madoff in her last six years, was the second defendant to testify at the 4-month trial, following operations head Dan Bonventre, 66, of Manhattan.
Those two, along with computer programmers Jerome O'Hara, 50, of Malverne; George Perez, 47, of East Brunswick, N.J.; and account manager Joanne Crupi, 52, of Westfield, N.J., are accused of helping Madoff fool regulators and investors.
Bongiorno, speaking in a thick Brooklyn accent, said she was just 19, fresh out of secretarial school with no securities industry experience when she joined Madoff's firm in 1968.
She first met him while taking office lunch orders, she testified. He stuttered so badly that he couldn't quite spit out the words ham and cheese, but she figured it out and delivered the right sandwich. "You're going to do really good here," he told her.
Later, Bongiorno said, when her old-school Italian father wanted her to quit because she was arriving home late every night in a limo with Madoff's brother, Madoff and his wife came to her house for lunch and charmed her parents. "They loved them," she testified.
Several of Bongiorno's ex-colleagues testified that she concocted trades to put on customer account statements by looking at stock and option prices in the newspaper.
Bongiorno said she routinely backdated trades and fulfilled requests from some customers to manufacture gains and losses in their accounts, she always assumed Madoff was simply allocating large trades he had actually made, and that it was all OK.
At one point, Bongiorno said, she discussed going back to college so she could get a securities license. But Madoff discouraged the idea. Bongiorno's testimony is scheduled to resume Tuesday.