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December 5, 2011

Loving a Madoff

Author Laurie Sandell recounts her relationship with Bernie Madoff's son Andrew and his fiance Catherine Hooper in the aftermath of the biggest financial fraud ever perpetrated.

catherine hooper

Catherine Hooper photographed in New York.

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When news broke that Bernie Madoff, broker to some of the world's wealthiest investors, had swindled them out of billions, the fallout was epic. Businesses were destroyed, entire fortunes wiped out. For the tight-knit Madoff family, the sins of the father would prove just as costly, plunging wife Ruth into a peripatetic life of exile and driving elder son Mark to suicide. Watching the crisis unfold firsthand was Catherine Hooper, the fiancée of Bernie's younger son, Andrew. In an unlikely turn, author Laurie Sandell befriended the couple — even hosted Ruth in her apartment for a week. Sandell's relationship with the Madoffs in the aftermath of the biggest financial fraud ever perpetrated gave her unprecedented access, which she mined for her new book, Truth and Consequences. In this MC exclusive, she describes how she came to know the surviving members of this shattered family, and how they answered the most troubling question of all: What exactly did they know?

September 2009 was a surreal time in my life: I had just published a book about my father called The Impostor's Daughter, about how I'd come to learn that everything he had ever told my family was a lie. He'd faked his university credentials, lied about his service in Vietnam, and taken credit cards out in my name; he'd also stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from a business associate. It was odd enough to have my life discussed in book reviews, to have complete strangers thank me for telling my story — or vilify me for "selling my father up the river." But nothing could have prepared me for the rabbit hole I was about to tumble down into.

I had just finished giving a book reading at a trendy pub in New York City, and was busy signing books, when two women approached and asked if they could speak with me. One, a slim brunette, introduced herself as Catherine Hooper, saying my reading had "really hit home." Her name didn't ring a bell — until she mentioned she was engaged to Andrew Madoff, the then 42-year-old son of Bernie Madoff, who had recently been outed as the biggest white-collar criminal of all time. Then I practically did a spit-take. The Madoffs were in the news every day, and I was following every twist in the sordid tale. I started chatting with Catherine, and she asked if I'd like to have dinner with her and Andrew at their apartment. I immediately said yes.

Catherine and Andrew were looking to meet new people, as many of Andrew's friends were muzzled by lawyers in the wake of the scandal. I had a different motive. As a journalist, I wanted to meet Andrew out of pure curiosity. What reporter wouldn't grab that opportunity? I assumed Andrew was involved in his father's fraud, just like the rest of the world did. He had worked at Bernie's investment firm, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, for 20 years. I wanted to see what he was like.

The night I arrived at the couple's apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I had no idea what I would find. A cold-eyed sociopath, perhaps? Catherine, then 36, greeted me at the door, smiling as she ushered me in. Their apartment was sparsely furnished, with a few couches and chairs scattered around the living room. They had just moved in two days before Bernie's confession, putting the kibosh on plans to hire a decorator. Andrew's assets had been frozen, I later learned, and he wasn't about to make any showy expenditures. (They remain frozen today, as he is still in the midst of negotiating a settlement.)

Andrew emerged from his office and shook my hand. He was friendly and approachable, although not particularly talkative. He and Catherine had ordered Vietnamese food, which they served on paper plates. During dinner, Andrew started to loosen up. He asked me about my book — in particular, what the fallout had been. Was my father speaking to me? (No.) Had I found peace through the experience of writing about what had happened? (Yes, sort of.) What had I done with the pictures of my father — had I torn them up? After that question, he led me into the hallway and showed me a photo hanging on the wall. In it, Andrew stands on a dock, hoisting a huge fish; in the background, Bernie smiles proudly from a yacht. Andrew appeared conflicted about this strange new territory — a limbo between warm memory and cold reality. I knew it all too well.

A few days later, Catherine asked if I could recommend a good book agent. She was thinking about writing a book on emergency preparedness. She had just launched her company, Black Umbrella, which would teach people how to prepare for emergencies, such as identity theft or earthquakes. I forwarded the note to my literary agent. "Just so you know, she's engaged to Andrew Madoff," I wrote. My agent, as I'd suspected, wasn't interested in a book about emergency preparedness. Maybe there was a book in her other story, she responded — that is, if the family would be willing to tell the whole story.

Andrew, who'd spent the last two years enduring the world's scorn and suspicion, was more than ready to participate. Desperate to clear his name, he was living in a legal limbo, unable to launch a new business in his name, buy a house, or marry the woman he loved. His mother, Ruth, was less eager; she didn't trust the press, and was, by nature, a private person. "I'm the most boring person in the world," she later told me. But soon, she, too, came around. Andrew was her only remaining immediate family member, and if the project was important to him, she was willing to offer her support. The family never formally approached me to write the book. Catherine and I sat down with my agent to discuss what kind of book they were open to participating in, and by the time we were done with our meeting, I was on board as the writer. I would talk to Catherine, Andrew, and Ruth — but not Bernie, who was in jail and no longer on speaking terms with Andrew. Also, I'd read the interviews Bernie had given from behind bars. They were grandiose, narcissistic, and full of lies. Now it was his family's turn to tell their story.

Professionally speaking, I was excited about the opportunity, but there was a hitch for me personally: I didn't know what I really thought about Catherine and Andrew yet. My conversations with them, while warm, weren't particularly deep. They'd shared some details about the scandal, but I'd never once posed to Andrew the question I most wanted to ask: You worked with your father for two decades — how could you not know?

In March, I began the book, entering the most extraordinary six months of my life. I started by learning Catherine's life story: how she grew up poor in upstate New York; how she fell in love with fly-fishing and became part-owner of a fly shop; how she had a daughter, Sophie, from a previous relationship; and how she met Andrew through her fly-fishing store. She shared details on everything from her initial misgivings about Andrew ("too geeky") to her most personal interactions with Bernie (he grabbed her butt and said her boobs were too small on one yacht outing). The press had labeled her a gold digger, saying that Andrew had left his wife of 16 years for her. Andrew told a different story: that his marriage was essentially over by the time he and Catherine got together. When news of the scandal broke, Catherine told me she didn't once doubt Andrew's innocence. Friends offered a helping hand had she wanted to leave, but she never considered it, though she later wondered if she'd made the right choice. "As the story grew, I saw the impact it was having on my ability to work and be judged for who I am, even though I was in no way connected to what Bernie did," Catherine says. "But in the end, being with the person I love was such a worthwhile trade-off that it didn't occur to me to make a different choice."

My first interviews with Andrew were difficult. We sat down at his apartment in New York a mere three months after his older brother's suicide. At every mention of Mark's name, he choked up, unable to go on. Shy and quiet by nature, Andrew was more composed about other topics, so I asked him about his work. I was hard on him, asking all the questions I felt the public wanted to know. There is too much to go into here, but his explanation of his innocence was essentially this: Andrew first worked at his father's firm in 1988, when he was in high school, as an intern in the market-making division. (When individuals want to buy, for example, 100 shares of Apple stock, they go to their broker, like Schwab or Fidelity, to do so. When those companies receive that order to buy those shares, they send it to a market maker, who executes the order.) When Andrew graduated from college, he re-entered the market-making division, working on the trading floor with Mark. There was another side to the business — an asset-management side — that Bernie ran on a separate floor. There were separate personnel, sepa-rate computer systems, and almost no interaction between the businesses at all, with the exception of the office Christmas party and the company weekend in Montauk, New York.

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