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Trial: Former Madoff secretary says she 'downsized' to $6.5M condo

Annette Bongiorno exits federal court in Manhattan after

Annette Bongiorno exits federal court in Manhattan after testifying Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. Bongiorno, of Manhasset, was master embezzler Bernard Madoff's longtime secretary. Credit: Charles Eckert

Two days after testifying that she lived frugally as she got older, former Bernie Madoff secretary Annette Bongiorno admitted Thursday to owning a Bentley and two Mercedes-Benzes, and trying to "downsize" into a $6.5 million Florida condo.

Bongiorno, 65, of Manhasset, a stenographer who had $50 million in her Madoff account when the Ponzi scheme collapsed in 2008, told the jury on Tuesday that the cash wasn't a payoff for keeping quiet -- it was a result of saving and not "splurging" on luxuries.

But in the middle of a four-hour cross-examination Thursday , prosecutor John Zach displayed a picture of a sleek, gray Bentley and asked Bongiorno if that fit in with the parsimony she claimed to practice on shoes and handbags.

"I did not include the Bentley," she said, calling it "one of my cars."

Zach followed up with a picture of the exclusive One Thousand Ocean building in Boca Raton, where Bongiorno shopped for an oceanfront condo to replace a second home she had in Florida. She said "downsizing" referred to square feet, not the $6.5 million price tag.

"It's smaller than my house," she testified.

Bongiorno and four other former Madoff aides are on trial in federal court in Manhattan for allegedly helping to facilitate the $19 billion scam by producing phony reports that fooled investors and regulators into thinking he was making profitable trades.

Prosecutors say the compensation was a reward for cutting corners and going along. In addition to big houses in Manhasset and Boca, the cars and the $50 million investment account, Bongiorno was shuttled to work by a car service and made more than $300,000 a year.

She had claimed that the money was a result of Madoff's generosity and her thrift. Thursday, she lamented that it was all gone -- vaporized when Madoff went under, or seized by the government. "What Bernie didn't take, they took," she said.

During cross-examination, Bongiorno admitted creating hundreds of client account statements that included phony and backdated trades, but insisted that she was just doing what Madoff told her to do, didn't know it was all a fraud, and knew nothing about finance.

As Zach walked her through instances where she had altered old-account statements when Madoff became concerned about regulatory scrutiny, Bongiorno responded with answers like "I never understood it" and "I didn't create the account, I just typed it."

Zach displayed Bongiorno's own Madoff investment accounts. They had 10,800 shares of Lehman Brothers in August 2008, but after Lehman collapsed in September, Bongiorno admitted, she backdated a purported August sale for nearly $16 a share.

She said it was ordered by Madoff, who wanted to insulate her account from the loss. "If I was told to do it, I did it," she testified. "Everything was backdated. It didn't raise a red flag."

The trial, which began in October, resumes on Monday.

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