Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff leaves federal court in Manhattan 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

Five years after the epic collapse of Bernard Madoff's $68 billion Ponzi scheme, five back-office aides including his former secretary were accused of decades of "brazen" lying to help him and line their own pockets, as the first criminal trial over the debacle began Wednesday.

"Year after year after year they lied and they stole and then they lied again and stole again for the most simple reason of all," prosecutor Matthew Schwartz told jurors in federal court in Manhattan. "Greed."

Schwartz said Madoff secretary Annette Bongiorno siphoned off $58 million as the scam collapsed in 2008, showed jurors a $2.7 million beach house account manager Joann Crupi was given, and said operations manager Daniel Bonventre's perks included a $1 million salary, country club dues and private school tuition for his son.

Bongiorno, 65, of Manhasset, Crupi, 52, of Westfield, N.J., Bonventre, 66, of Manhattan, and computer programmers Jerome O'Hara, 50, of Malverne, and George Perez, 47, of East Brunswick, N.J., are charged with 33 counts of conspiracy, securities fraud and other crimes.

They sat silently in the well of a cavernous ceremonial courtroom, which is being used to accommodate an expected influx of victims. Defense opening statements are Thursday, and the trial is expected to last five months. Madoff, 75, imprisoned in North Carolina, is not expected to testify.

Schwartz, speaking for 90 minutes, said the five played different roles, but as a group had ignored red flags and concocted false account statements and financial records to assemble millions of pages of phony documentation to fool investors, auditors and regulators for more than 30 years.

He said losses stand at $19 billion. "A fraud of that size and scope and duration could not have been pulled off by one man alone," he told the jury of eight women and four men. "Bernard Madoff needed help to pull it off. They provided that help. They enabled and supported that fraud."

Bongiorno, hired in 1968, and Crupi, hired in 1983, interacted with investors and invented fictitious trades to put on account statements to provide backing for predetermined results on account statements sent out to thousands of clients, Schwartz said. "Annette Bongiorno knew there were no stocks and no bonds, no buy and no sell," he said. "She knew it was just paper."

Bonventre, he said, created four different versions of the firm's "general ledger" and other accounting records to exploit the different limitations of U.S. and foreign auditors, while Perez and O'Hara designed "customized computer programs that automated the lies."

On one occasion, Schwartz said, when visiting auditors asked unexpectedly for a set of documents that hadn't been kept, Crupi, Bonventre and the two programmers rushed out to print up some phony records and then refrigerated them so that it wasn't obvious they had just been printed.

The government's star witness at trial is expected to be Frank DiPascali, a former top aide in Madoff's investment operation who pleaded guilty in 2009 and agreed to testify against his former co-workers.

Schwartz said the government witnesses would not dispute the expected defense claim that Madoff, as he was carrying out the fraud, lied to his own employees and tried to allay suspicions. But he said no one was fooled.

"Regardless of what Bernard Madoff was saying," he told jurors, "these five defendants knew exactly what they were doing . . . and they knew that it was wrong."

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