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Video: Madoff’s secretary: I believe ‘he is protecting people’

TODAY contributor
updated 5/6/2009 11:43:45 AM ET 2009-05-06T15:43:45

Bernard Madoff's longtime secretary says she believes the disgraced financier orchestrated his own arrest, and that the reason he is not cooperating with authorities is to protect others.

“I know that he knew it was all going down and he knew it was over,” Eleanor Squillari told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Wednesday in New York. “I believe that yes, he is protecting people.”

Vieira asked Squillari whom Madoff is protecting.

“I really don’t think that I should say, but I would like to say that I hope that anybody who is knowingly involved would be brought to justice,” she replied.

The final days
Squillari worked for Madoff for 25 years, the last 20 as his personal secretary. She appeared on TODAY to discuss an article she co-wrote for Vanity Fair magazine detailing what she knew about Madoff and the days immediately surrounding his arrest last Dec. 11.

In the article, Squillari said that she helped the FBI gather evidence against her former boss, who pleaded guilty to the largest securities fraud in American history. Thousands of investors lost an estimated $65 billion in what has been described as an enormous Ponzi scheme.

Squillari said she had no clue that anything was wrong as the feds moved in on the 71-year-old financier, who is now in federal prison.

“In hindsight, in anything that goes on in life, you see things differently, but in all the years I worked there, never did I ever question anything,” Squillari said.

But, she told Vieira, as Madoff’s financial house of cards was crashing down, his behavior changed and his health seemed to deteriorate.

“In the last weeks before his arrest, Bernie was physically in distress with his blood pressure. He was taking medication. He had a lot of back pain. He would lie on the floor and close his eyes and just lay there to relieve the pain,” Squillari said.

“One day he threw the mail back at me and said that he didn’t want it anymore,” she added. “He was unresponsive sometimes and very preoccupied.”

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Things started to click
After he was arrested early on the morning of Dec. 11, Squillari said she called Madoff on her cell phone and left a message that said, “I’m doing the best that I can with the phones and that if he needed anything, I told him, ‘I care about you.’ ”

Squillari only started to put things together when he returned the call.

“He called me back on my private line shortly thereafter,” she told Vieira. “The conversation was a little unsettling when I hung up the phone, because he asked me, ‘Have they been in my office?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Have they been in my briefcase?’ I said ‘Yes.’ He specifically asked me if they had been in his appointment book. That’s when it started to click. I had seen a few things in the appointment book that I didn’t understand, but I didn’t want to question because he was so preoccupied.”

Mark Seal, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair who helped Squillari write the article, joined her for the TODAY interview. Seal said Madoff’s questions showed that he was orchestrating his own arrest.

“He left behind clues and evidence that would make sense later on, so he staged the arrest,” Seal explained.

Several family members worked for Madoff's investment firm. His younger brother, Peter, was senior managing director and chief compliance officer, and Peter's daughter, Shana, was the compliance attorney. Madoff's sons, Mark, 45, and Andrew, 42, both worked in the trading arm of the firm. Ruth Madoff, Bernie's wife of 50 years, also maintained an office at the firm. To date, none of Madoff's family members has been charged in connection with the fraud.

Sharp-eyed wife
Ruth Madoff had an office at Madoff’s firm and was intimately involved with it, especially early on during Squillari’s years there.

“Ruth is very sharp,” Squillari told Vieira. “She did at one time handle all the invoices. When I started working there, she had her own office, and did until the arrest.” She said that although Ruth Madoff came in less frequently in later years, she still balanced the office checkbook.

Ruth Madoff is seeking to keep at least $62 million in cash and her $7 million Manhattan penthouse, along with homes the family owns around the world. The FBI is seeking to seize all of Madoff’s assets.

The 59-year-old Squillari says her former boss was flirtatious, made sexually suggestive remarks and frequented massage parlors. His wife, she said, “kept an eagle eye on him when he was around young, attractive women.”

Vieira asked Squillari what she would say to Madoff if she could speak to him again.

“After I stop crying, I would really want to know why he’s not cooperating,” she replied.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.

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