Bernie Madoff has friends and former associates befuddled. How could such a nice, competent guy create so much misery? In this New York Times article, “The Talented Mr. Madoff,” Julie Creswell and Landon Thomas portray the New York financier as a classic psychopath.
In a recent post, “Psychopaths Under Oath,” I argue that American prosecutors are vulnerable to the machinations of psycopathic witnesses. The Madoff story is just another example.
Creswell and Thomas are reluctant to portray Bernie Madoff as a psychopath without consulting expert opinion, beginning with an FBI profiler.
“Some of the characteristics you see in psychopaths are lying, manipulation, the ability to deceive, feelings of grandiosity and callousness toward their victims,” says Gregg O. McCrary, a former special agent with the F.B.I. who spent years constructing criminal behavioral profiles.
Mr. McCrary cautions that he has never met Mr. Madoff, so he can’t make a diagnosis, but he says Mr. Madoff appears to share many of the destructive traits typically seen in a psychopath. That is why, he says, so many who came into contact with Mr. Madoff have been left reeling and in confusion about his motives.
“People like him become sort of like chameleons. They are very good at impression management,” Mr. McCrary says. “They manage the impression you receive of them. They know what people want, and they give it to them.”
I wish the FBI had consulted Mr. McCrary before they decided to believe every word proceeding from the mouth of a low-level psychopath named Donny McCuien. But the relationship between AUSA Stephen Snyder and Mr. McCuien isn’t all that unusual. Consider this:
Current and former S.E.C. regulators have come under fire, accused of failing to adequately supervise Mr. Madoff and being too cozy with him. “He [Madoff] was the darling of the regulators, without question. He was doing everything the regulators wanted him to do,” says Nicholas A. Giordano, the former president of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. “They wanted him to be a fierce competitor to the New York Stock Exchange, and he was doing it.”
Men like Mr. Snyder are entangled in the webs woven by witnesses like Donnie McCuien because they are dependent on their cooperation. Like Bernie Madoff, Donnie McCuien listened carefully to the authority figures in his world until he learned what they wanted to hear–what they were desperate to hear. . Once that is established, it is simply a matter of saying the precious words in the right order and with the right emphasis.
Gullibility is driven by prosecutorial desperation.
Psychopaths are successful because they are completely unconcerned with the feelings of others–they have no empathy. Because they are only concerned about their own interests, psychopaths are unencumbered by ethical and moral niceties. Which brings us to the second expert cited in the New York Times article.
Mr. Madoff’s confidence reminds J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist, of criminals he has studied.
“Typically, people with psychopathic personalities don’t fear getting caught,” explains Dr. Meloy, author of a 1988 textbook, “The Psychopathic Mind.” “They tend to be very narcissistic with a strong sense of entitlement.”
All of which has led some forensic psychologists to see some similarities between him and serial killers like Ted Bundy. They say that whereas Mr. Bundy murdered people, Mr. Madoff murdered wallets, bank accounts and people’s sense of financial trust and security.
Like Mr. Bundy, Mr. Madoff used a sharp mind and an affable demeanor to create a persona that didn’t exist, according to this view, and lulled his victims into a false sense of security. And when publicly accused, he seemed to show no remorse.
Like Bernie Madoff, Donny McCuien never worried about getting caught. He was so confident in his ability to deceive federal authorities like Stephen Snyder that he continued to run real estate scams while he was telling the government that he knew nothing about the world of real estate.
Because Alvin Clay was willing to do the government’s work after the fact, it has recently come to light that Donny McCuien was enthusiastically scamming buyers, sellers and lenders when he took the stand to speak the words Mr. Snyder longed to hear.
True, McCuien is to Madoff as a minnow is to a whale, but the same principles hold.
Ultimately, McCuien and Madoff were undone because neither man could conceive of personal failure. The technical term is “grandiosity”.
The media can’t be expected to unmask the likes of Madoff and McCuien. Until Madoff admitted (without a shadow of remorse) to pocketing fifty billion dollars of other peoples’ money, journalists had no reason to suspect the man. The New York Times didn’t commission a major investigative article until after the Wall Street magnate had fallen from grace.
Similarly, I haven’t been able to interest the media in the plight of Alvin Clay.
Prosecutors, investigators and S.E.C. enforcers who fear the wrath of a just God must develop a keen nose for psychopaths like Madoff and McCuien. We should probably be paying more psychologists and profilers to check out potential witnesses. The signs of deception are easily spotted once you know what to look for and it is so much easier to clean up the mess before another wrongful conviction or Ponzi scheme goes into the books.