Irving Picard, partner at Baker & Hostetler LLP, leaves U.S....

Irving Picard, partner at Baker & Hostetler LLP, leaves U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York. (Feb. 2, 2010) Credit: Bloomberg / Daniel Acker

The trustee hunting for money in the Bernard Madoff fraud said Tuesday his goal is to return 100 percent of the money customers invested in the giant $20-billion Ponzi scheme.

But at a hearing in federal bankruptcy court in Manhattan, the trustee, Irving Picard, admitted that the chance of reaching such a target was uncertain for now.

"Will we achieve that? I don't know," Picard said.

So far, Picard has recouped $2.5 billion and is close to settling various lawsuits, including one involving the estate of philanthropist Jeffry Picower, who was sued while he was alive for more than $7.2 billion in cash the trustee alleged were profits illegally taken from Madoff's scam.

While Picard didn't indicate Tuesday what settlements he believed were close, legal sources familiar with the Madoff case indicated a development in the Picower matter was imminent. If the Picower case is settled for anything near what Picard is suing for, that could push the recovery up to well over $8 billion, representing a possible 40 percent recovery for investors.

The bankruptcy court hearing ended about an hour before the body of Madoff's son Mark, 46, who hanged himself in his SoHo apartment Saturday, was removed from the city morgue by a Manhattan funeral home. An official at Gramercy Park Memorial Chapel on Second Avenue, the firm that city officials said removed the body, said he had no information.

Picard's court appearance was the first since a deadline last Saturday to file lawsuits seeking to claw back money from investors who took out more from their Madoff accounts than they put in. Estimates on the amounts Picard is seeking run from about $41.5 billion to as much as $80 billion, including a special treble-damage racketeering suit filed against Austrian financier Sonja Kohn and her former Bank Medici.

Both Picard and Judge Burton Lifland acknowledged the uncertainty of litigation and that some of the cases would settle.

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