Opinion

Alison Frankel

Former SEC GC Becker gives $556k gift to Madoff investors

By Alison Frankel
February 29, 2012

There’s a very good chance that former Securities and Exchange Commission general counsel David Becker owes absolutely nothing to the folks who lost money in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Nevertheless, on Monday, Becker and his two brothers agreed to turn over every penny of the proceeds they received from their mother’s long-ago Madoff investment account, a total of $556,017. Becker, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, didn’t return my call seeking comment. But he is doubtless hoping that the $556,017 settlement with Madoff bankruptcy trustee Irving Picard of Baker & Hostetler puts an end to the ugliest chapter in his career.

For a brief while last year, you’ll recall, Becker was the favorite whipping boy of Madoff victims and their congressional champions. Becker and his two brothers were what’s known as net winners in the Madoff pyramid. After their mother’s death in 2004 they transferred the approximately $2 million in her Madoff investment account to a Smith Barney probate account. By September 2006, the will was probated and the account was liquidated. But in December 2010, Picard sued Becker and his brothers, demanding the return of $1.5 million in allegedly fraudulent profits from their mother’s estate.

At the time, Becker was the SEC’s general counsel. And though he informed the agency’s ethics office of his inheritance (and SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro was aware of Becker’s Madoff proceeds), the GC was not asked to step out of SEC deliberations — and did not recuse himself from the debate — on the appropriate method for compensating investors. When word got out of Becker’s Madoff money, Schapiro took a beating in Congress.

Becker faced even more potentially serious consequences. An exhaustive September 2011 report by then-SEC Inspector General David Kotz concluded with the finding that Becker’s actions merited a referral to the Justice Department’s Office of Public Integrity for a criminal investigation. Becker, who had resigned from the SEC in February 2011 to return to his partnership at Cleary, defended himself before a congressional committee buzzing about Kotz’s allegations; in November, the Justice Department told Becker’s counsel, William Baker of Latham & Watkins, that it was not opening a criminal investigation of the former SEC GC.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senior District Judge Jed Rakoff issued a ruling in Picard’s case against the owners of the New York Mets that could have wiped out any Picard claims against Becker and his brothers. Rakoff determined that Picard could not attempt to claw back allegedly fictitious profits dating back more than two years before Madoff’s firm collapsed. By any measurement, the Beckers’ ties to Madoff ended more than two years before December 2008, when the Madoff fraud was exposed. If Rakoff’s reasoning is upheld on appeal, Becker and his brothers would be off the hook entirely.

Instead, they chose to give back every penny they received from their mother’s Madoff investment. (The difference between Picard’s clawback claim and the $556,017 settlement is the fees and taxes the Beckers paid on their inheritance.)

A Picard spokesperson said the settlement “represents the recovery of an amount equal to 100 percent of the subsequent transfers received by the sons,” noting that to recover more than that, Picard would have had to reopen the probate proceeding, “a time-consuming, expensive and difficult undertaking under Massachusetts law.”

Becker’s lawyers at Latham & Watkins issued a statement pointing out that the Becker brothers are “returning 100 percent of the fictitious profits distributed to them,” which is entirely consistent with David Becker’s previous statements on his Madoff inheritance. “He always expected that he would return any fictitious profits that he unknowingly received,” the statement said. “Mr. Becker has done everything possible, both at the SEC and in his private affairs, to assist the victims of the Madoff fraud.”

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