A federal judge on Tuesday gave big breaks to two former Bernie Madoff aides from Long Island, sentencing his ex-secretary Annette Bongiorno and computer manager Jerome O'Hara to less than half the prison time prosecutors wanted for their roles in the $20 billion Ponzi scam.
U.S. District Judge Laura Swain gave 6 years instead of a requested 20 years to Bongiorno, 66, of Manhasset, who entered hundreds of fictional trades in client accounts, worrying that the diminutive ex-secretary -- several inches shy of 5 feet -- might have a hard time behind bars.
"Her age and her unusually small stature might put her in a vulnerable position in a prison facility," said Swain, who also noted that Bongiorno has been confined to her house for four years since her arrest. The sentence was less than the 8-to-10 years Bongiorno's own lawyer urged.
Prosecutors wanted O'Hara, 51, of Malverne, who handled computer programs used to fool auditors and regulators with phony reports, to get over eight years. But Swain imposed 2 1/2 years, saying his knowledge of fraudulent conduct began in 2006 -- far later than others -- and his role was more confined.
"Mr. O'Hara was not aware Madoff Securities was a Ponzi scheme, and he is not a morally bankrupt conniver," the judge said. "He is much less culpable than his colleagues."
Swain sentenced former Madoff director of operations Daniel Bonventre to 10 years in prison on Monday, instead of the 20-plus sought by prosecutors. She will sentence former programmer George Perez tomorrow, and former account manager JoAnn Crupi next week.
So far, the sentences suggest the judge, who oversaw the six-month conspiracy and fraud trial of five ex-aides, is unwilling despite guilty verdicts on 31 counts in March to throw the book at workers who were paid well to cut corners for Madoff, but were also fooled by him.
"I am not sentencing Madoff Securities. I am not sentencing Bernard Madoff," she has said during each proceeding. And victims -- who mobbed the court in 2009 when Madoff was sentenced -- seem to agree. They sent dozens of letters, but not one has asked to speak this week.
Bongiorno's sentence followed a tearful plea in which the four-decade Madoff veteran repeated claims from her trial that she was a high school grad trained only in typing and stenography, not smart enough to figure out that reporting backdated fake trades to customers was part of a scam.
"I realize that my ignorance is no excuse," Bongiorno, who was allowed to use a special chair at trial to accommodate her small size, told the judge. "My ignorance was so severe that it has caused me to become a criminal. I know that now."
Swain gave Bongiorno a tongue lashing for being willfully blind as far back as 1992 about crimes she was facilitating in return for millions in compensation, but the judge said she was "loyal" and "obedient" -- not "fundamentally corrupt."
The judge also imposed a $155 billion forfeiture order on Bongiorno, along with other Madoff defendants. Defense lawyer Roland Riopelle said she and her husband are worth about $14 million, including two million-dollar houses, but she expects to lose her entire share of the assets.
O'Hara, like Bongiorno, said his life had been laid waste by the scandal and he was ashamed his name was associated with the "despicable crimes" of Madoff. "I am terribly sorry that my work was used to further these crimes," he said.
But Swain said it also showed he was less "enthusiastic" than others, and cited O'Hara's family circumstances as a father of young children in explaining the short sentence.
Swain agreed to recommend to prison officials that Bongiorno serve her time at a women's prison camp in Coleman, Florida. The judge ordered her to surrender Feb. 19. She imposed a $19.7 billion forfeiture order on O'Hara, and set a hearing for Wednesday on when he will report.