From Madoff tipster to film star
By the time he made it to “The Daily Show’’ in March 2010, whistle-blower Harry Markopolos looked like one more Bernie Madoff victim. The man who saw through the super-swindler years earlier - but couldn’t persuade regulators to act - appeared cynical, weary, and perhaps a bit paranoid.
Sixteen months after Madoff’s multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme imploded in 2008, Markopolos was grinding through a media tour to promote “No One Would Listen,’’ his book about the frustrating effort to catch a thief.
Now, that tale is being retold in “Chasing Madoff,’’ a documentary film scheduled for release next week in the Boston area. During lunch last week at a cafe in the Financial District to talk about the movie, Markopolos seemed at ease, happy - especially in comparison with last year’s “Daily Show’’ interview. Back then, he still came across as a grim, bookish former Boston securities analyst, right down to the salmon-colored necktie that flopped down on Jon Stewart’s desk.
“You are an angry dude!’’ Stewart said after one exchange.
“I am so angry,’’ Markopolos replied. “I can’t tell you how angry I am.’’
Who could blame him? He spent most of a decade trying to get an ineffectual Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate Madoff. In the end, however, it was Wall Street’s collapse that rooted out the phony hedge-fund manager - unable to sustain the ruse when investors scrambled to grab their cash, Madoff turned himself in. Life savings vanished in the scroll of a CNBC headline. Markopolos considered it a personal failure.
“I was like the boy that cried wolf,’’ he says onscreen, “but there was a wolf.’’
If smiles come more easily for him today, it is partly because Markopolos believes the 2011 SEC - charged with overseeing the financial industry - is “a much better place.’’ The agency listens, he said.
“They either had to wake up or go out of existence. They’re doing big cases now, they’re very aggressive.’’
It also helps that Madoff is collecting dust in a jail cell for the next century and a half, or “a buck-fifty,’’ as Markopolos puts it. “He’s in the right place.’’
Even the necktie is under control - tucked neatly into his dress shirt as the waiter swooped in with a plate of grilled chicken. “I have my life back,’’ he said between bites. “Who wouldn’t want that?’’
He still lives in the Southeastern Massachusetts town of Whitman, “six doors from the Irish pub,’’ and says he is working to expose big banks’ endemic evils. It’s how he prefers to operate - in the background.
“I chase big white-collar rats down a sewer,’’ he said. “That’s what I do for a living. I see the worst forms of human behavior.’’
Markopolos said he is currently in the midst of an insider trading case, which he declined to discuss in detail. “I get a percentage if we win,’’ he said, “and the bad guys are the ones who pay.’’
“Chasing Madoff,’’ directed by Jeff Prosserman, and opening here Aug. 26, is a necessary “dumbing down’’ of a complicated subject, according to Markopolos. “It’s the Reader’s Digest version.’’ Scenes that stretch out for pages in “No One Would Listen’’ become rapid-fire episodes to speed the narrative. He is satisfied with the finished product, but as with his pursuit of Madoff, getting there proved a grind. Last year, the investigative team Markopolos assembled - including Frank Casey, a former colleague at Rampart Investment Management in Boston - was stunned by a rough-cut screening.
“It was terrible,’’ he said. “We were so depressed, we drank ourselves silly that night.’’ They particularly hated a pillow fight scene in front of the New York Stock Exchange. He told the filmmakers, “That’s really insensitive to the victims. You can’t make fun of this.’’
The pillows went, leaving more room for Prosserman to dwell on the possibility that had Madoff known what Markopolos was up to, he might have resorted to murder.
“It’s one of his story arcs,’’ Markopolos said. “I spent almost no time on it in the book.’’
Prosserman, speaking from New York, said the thriller angle was a way to reach a broader audience. “You have a protagonist who talks as if he came out of one of those detective novels. We didn’t manipulate that - it’s just who Harry is. . . . I look at him as the perfect underdog character.’’
Markopolos said he did consider the possibility of death. “Think of how many families Bernie destroyed,’’ he said. “What’s one more - my family? The guy was soulless. You have no idea how evil he was.’’
Convinced that he was in peril, for a while Markopolos took to carrying a gun - including on a visit to The Boston Globe newsroom soon after Madoff’s arrest. He remembers an FBI agent telling him, “For that many dollars, bad things happen to people. You were very lucky.’’
In a series of stylized dramatizations, “Chasing Madoff’ plays up the scares.
Markopolos wields a rifle, tries on a bulletproof vest, takes target practice, and checks under his car for bombs. He describes how the end might come: a flash of light and two shots to the head. In another scene, a concerned Whitman police sergeant acts as if he would be willing to call in a squadron of fighter jets on Markopolos’s behalf.
“I’m not an actor and I don’t pretend to be one,’’ Markopolos said over the dining room chatter. He is telling the truth.
In case it’s not clear that all sorts of sinister stuff was going on - or might have been going on - we see blood-splattered papers, flaming cash, and stock footage of mob-hit carnage.
Markopolos was so intent on protecting documents implicating Madoff and exposing the SEC’s ineptitude that he enlisted his wife in a plan to thwart a raid on their home that never took place. “Anybody who came up the stairs that wasn’t me, she’d just keep shooting until she ran out of ammo,’’ he says in one scene.
But no one will mistake “Chasing Madoff’’ for a Jason Bourne outing. Fundamentally, Prosserman’s documentary is about numbers, arcane financial maneuvers, and the accountants who love them.
In it, Casey says Markopolos is a “lovable, affable geek.’’ Neil Chelo, another Madoff investigator, labels him a “crazy professor.’’ Markopolos doesn’t return the favors, but it is fair to say none of them overflow with charisma.
Madoff shows up, too - prior to his takedown - as do members of Congress who lambaste contrite SEC leaders in the scandal’s aftermath. A few people ruined by Madoff are heard from throughout, identified only by their account numbers. Watching them makes him cry, Markopolos said. “It’s hard not to. You feel like you could have done a better job.’’
Not so, said James Masella, an attorney whose law firm, Blank Rome LLP, represents about 90 individual and institutional investors who lost money with Madoff.
“They think it’s an absolute tragedy that the SEC declined to listen,’’ said Masella, who has not yet seen the film. Markopolos “did as much as any human being could do and he should hold his head high,’’ he said.
But Markopolos is not finished with the Madoff saga. Talks are underway for a Hollywood version and already he is speculating on the casting. “We’re looking for Pee-wee Herman to play the lead,’’ he laughed. “Mel Gibson, obviously, he’s going to play Bernie.’’
Until then, there is this film, with its bullet-gutted bodies, gun barrels, and creeping shadows. For many, the most troubling part may not come until the closing credits - a dedication “to those who will fall in the next financial crisis.’’ Following the frenzy that whipped through world markets this month, “next’’ is uncomfortably close to now.
Mark Pothier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.