NEW YORK, N.Y. – A Manhattan judge found plenty of reasons for leniency Tuesday as she ordered prison stints for financier Bernard Madoff’s former secretary and a computer programmer that fell well short of the double-digit prison terms the government had sought.
U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain sentenced ex-Madoff secretary Annette Bongiorno to 6 years in prison and programmer Jerome O’Hara to 2 1/2 years in prison.
Swain called Bongiorno “a pampered, compliant and grossly overcompensated clerical worker who supervised other clerical workers with a ferocious enthusiasm.”
She said O’Hara was “not a morally corrupt conniver who set out to hurt anyone” but instead had displayed concern, responsibility and empathy since his arrest.
In Bongiorno’s case, Swain largely agreed with the 66-year-old woman’s testimony that she merely did as Madoff instructed for 40 years, unaware her deeds were supporting history’s biggest Ponzi scheme and costing thousands of investors billions of dollars.
For Bongiorno, the judge even noted her lack of height and age as she ignored federal sentencing guidelines that called for a life sentence and the recommendation of prosecutors that she serve significantly more than 20 years in prison.
Bongiorno and O’Hara were among five Madoff employees convicted earlier this year after a six-month trial. Madoff’s former director of operations was sentenced to a decade in prison Monday. Two others, another computer programmer and an office manager, await sentencing.
Prosecutors said Madoff could not have carried out the fraud without them.
The 76-year-old Madoff, arrested in December 2008, is serving a 150-year prison sentence.
The judge said Bongiorno “could and should have recognized that Mr. Madoff’s success seemed impossible because it was impossible.”
Swain added: “Ms. Bongiorno chose to put her life and the life of others in the wrong hands.”
Prosecutors said in court papers that Bongiorno was “at the very heart of the fraud” for decades.
The fraud cost thousands of investors nearly $20 billion and the judge acknowledged the pain to investors even as she accepted the defendants’ assertions that they too were victims of their controlling boss.
Before she was sentenced, Bongiorno portrayed herself as a loyal worker who was in over her head from the time she was hired at age 19.
“Not once in my 40 years there did anyone say to me, ‘Annette, this is not the way it’s done in the real world,'” she said. “I thought I was doing my job as I thought it should be done.”
To the victims, Bongiorno said: “I am so very sorry. I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. I didn’t have intent to steal from you. I understand how you are feeling because I am a victim of Madoff as well. I believed in Madoff and cared for him just like you.”
She added: “I will be haunted by my shame for the rest of my life.”
The judge, who also ordered forfeiture of $155 billion, said she will recommend that Bongiorno serve the last year of her prison term in home confinement.
The huge forfeiture numbers represent an amount of money connected to the fraud, not the amount stolen or lost.