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Bernard Madoff's aides' attorney: He created 'aura of legitimacy'

Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff leaves federal court in

Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff leaves federal court in Manhattan in March 2009 after agreeing to plead guilty to charges in a massive Ponzi scheme. He is now serving 150 years in a federal prison in North Carolina, and five of his aides are on trial. Credit: Getty Images

Bernie fooled everyone. Even his own workers.

That was the theme of defense opening arguments in federal court in Manhattan Thursday as lawyers for five aides accused of helping Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff compared his aura of Wall Street power to God, LeBron James, Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey.

"If you are born and raised in Oz, you think the wizard is real," said Larry Krantz, the lawyer for computer programmer George Perez. "You don't have the benefit of seeing the curtain pulled back. He [Perez] most definitely believed."

"Madoff created an aura of legitimacy that seemed real," said Andrew Frisch, who represents former operations manager Daniel Bonventre. " . . . Hindsight is always 20-20. What is obvious to everyone now was not apparent at the time it was occurring."

"He was her knight in plaid," said Roland Riopelle, the lawyer for secretary and account manager Annette Bongiorno, who worked for Madoff for more than 40 years. "She looked up to Mr. Madoff as some kind of hero. She believed Mr. Madoff."

Perez, 47, of East Brunswick, N.J.; Bonventre, 66, of Manhattan; and Bongiorno, 65, of Manhasset, are charged with conspiracy and securities fraud along with two other veteran employees, account manager Joann Crupi, 52, of Westfield, N.J.; and programmer Jerome O'Hara, 50, of Malverne.

The trial, the first test of criminal charges stemming from the 2008 collapse of Madoff's investment business that has cost investors an estimated $19 billion, began on Wednesday. It is projected to last as long as five months.

Prosecutors contend that the five knew what Madoff was up to and got generous pay and perks to help produce phony records of fake trades for three decades that tricked investors and kept regulators off his trail.

The defense lawyers, in opening arguments, all portrayed Madoff as a larger than life figure -- a man visited by luminaries like Sen. Charles Schumer who sat on Wall Street and SEC advisory committees -- who lied to his workers just like he lied to everyone else.

They all said that their clients followed a pattern in Madoff's hiring -- novices without any securities experience elsewhere. They all said Madoff was "secretive" and "compartmentalized" his business so no one saw the big picture. They all said it was unfair to blame back-office workers for missing a scam that eluded the SEC.

"He fooled international banks and brokerages," said Crupi's lawyer, Eric Breslin. "He fooled super sophisticated investors . . . The government will not be able to prove that Joann Crupi should have been able to see through him when so many others did not."

All the defense lawyers also signaled they would target the credibility of star prosecution witness Frank DiPascali, the top Madoff aide who agreed to cooperate after pleading guilty in 2008.

Frisch said DiPascali and Madoff were peas in a pod, both "depraved" and "pathological" liars. Gordon Mehler, O'Hara's lawyer, compared Madoff to the Dr. Evil character from the Austin Powers comedies.

DiPascali, he said, was like the villain's sidekick -- Mini-Me.

Testimony in the trial will begin on Monday.

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