Bernie Madoff's personal secretary continued to deny knowledge of his fraud in federal court testimony Tuesday, insisting that her $50 million investment account and $342,000 salary were a result of luck, frugality and hard work -- not a payoff for keeping quiet.
"I had this great account that made this great return, and in the early years I saved as much as I could," Madoff aide Annette Bongiorno told jurors. "I didn't have children. Children are a big cash drain. And I didn't spend a lot of money on clothes and shoes."
Reminded by her lawyer that she had only a high school education and training as a stenographer, Bongiorno -- who is accused along with four other Madoff aides of helping him pull off his Ponzi scheme -- recast her answer.
"I thought I was very, very lucky once," she testified. "Kind of like hitting the lottery. But I always worked very hard. I was on call 24/7."
Bongiorno, 65, of Manhasset, is charged along with account manager Joann Crupi, 52, of Westfield, N.J., computer managers Jerome O'Hara, 50, of Malverne, George Perez, 47, of East Brunswick, N.J., and operations head Daniel Bonventre, 66, of Manhattan.
The government says that the five, even if they didn't know the full scope of Madoff's unprecedented $20 billion scam, are guilty of helping him cut corners to fool customers and regulators. Bongiorno is the second defendant to testify in the four-months-long trial.
Prosecution witnesses, including ex-colleagues of Bongiorno, have said she played a critical role by fabricating phony trades to put on customer statements for three decades while her own Madoff account was stuffed with purported returns of 26 percent a year.
Bongiorno, as she did on Monday, tried to deploy ignorance as her shield -- telling jurors she didn't even know what the Dow Jones average was, and just followed Madoff's orders, assuming that she was "allocating" trades he had made in large blocks and not making them up.
Her lawyer, Roland Riopelle, showed her instructions she wrote when the Madoff firm was computerizing its systems, insisting on maximum flexibility in preparing customer statements. "I need the ability to give any settlement date I want," her note said.
He asked if she was trying to deceive customers by manipulating their records. "What do you mean?" Bongiorno said. "No. Not at all."
Later, Riopelle asked about her efforts to revise dozens of customer statements of clients from an accounting firm that had come under SEC scrutiny -- a process initiated because Madoff feared the SEC would discover his own fraud, according to the prosecution.
Bongiorno said she had no idea why her boss wanted to redo the statements, and no idea that there was anything wrong with it.
"They never mentioned the SEC and auditors," she said. "Bernie only told me what Bernie needed to tell me to get me to do my job. Bernie didn't explain things like that to me, and I wouldn't have understood it if he did."
Bongiorno is expected to complete her testimony and face cross-examination Wednesday.