Annette Bongiorno, the 62-year-old longtime confidante of Bernard Madoff, is trading country-club living for a cell rather than help federal prosecutors recover millions of dollars they say she stole.
The Ponzi king's executive assistant of 40 years, escorted by her husband Rudy, surrendered to U.S. marshals in Florida Tuesday, even as the couple angered authorities by playing hide-and-seek with their alleged Madoff millions.
"She did not come in with any property," Wayne Pickering, the supervising deputy at the U.S. Marshals Office in West Palm Beach, Florida, told The Daily Beast. "When you get here, it is basically with just the clothes you have on your back."
“This process has been excruciating… Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, she didn’t want to go” to prison, said one of Bongiorno’s defense lawyers.
The surrender came less than three hours after a New York hearing in which U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain declared Bongiorno a "substantial flight risk," revoked the Madoff confidante's $5 million bail, and ended discussions about reducing bail to $3 million, a number Bongiorno might have been able to meet.
The judge ordered Bongiorno jailed after reviewing, in secret, a list produced by the defense of undisclosed millions of dollars in assets held by Bongiorno and her husband. Prosecutors disputed whether Rudy Bongiorno, who retired as an electrician on disability in 1986, could have earned any significant money or obtained cash outside of what his wife gave to him from her Madoff stash.
The unusual procedure by Swain of reviewing documents "ex parte" amounted to the judge going an extra mile to be fair. It backfired on Bongiorno, who could spend as much as 75 years in prison if found guilty of being a co-conspirator in Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
The judge said she was "persuaded that there is an abundance of unrestrained assets that pose a real potential for the facilitation of flight…. There is no condition, or combination of conditions, that will assure her presence at trial."
The secret examination was part of the judge's consideration of a Bongiorno defense proposal to have her bail reduced from $5 million to $3 million and to have her still-hidden assets monitored by an outside accounting firm to prove that she has neither the capability nor the intention to flee.
The prosecutors, who were denied access to the Bongiorno list, want to seize the millions she and her husband have squirreled away. Neither the prosecutors nor the judge would consider permitting the hidden assets to be used to post $5 million bail on the grounds that it may well be "victim money" that represents the fruits of her participation in the Madoff conspiracy.
The indictment against Bongiorno says she got more than $14 million from the Ponzi scheme while working on the dark side of Madoff's operation. Other court papers indicate she may have transferred more than $1 million to her husband.
She was quickly transported about four miles to the Palm Beach County Jail in West Palm Beach, where she will be held until she can be transferred to the Federal Detention Center in Miami.
One of her defense lawyers, Maurice Sercarz, told reporters that his client—4' 10", and 135 lbs., unhealthy, and afraid of flying—deserved to remain out of jail pending trial, which has not yet been scheduled.
"While it may be that a person has the wherewithal to flee, it does not mean she has the intention to flee," Sercarz said. "If there is no will to flee, there is no way to find she is a risk of flight… I am far from convinced that this is the end of it."
The government has already seized $5.1 million in bank accounts and property, including a Bentley and two Mercedes-Benz sedans, from the Bongiornos.
Still, because prosecutors say the government wants to seize any other assets it can locate, the couple has refused to reveal the value of any of Rudy's solo accounts or the location of other accounts, including $2.4 million they admit they have stashed in joint accounts.
Bongiorno's defense team immediately appealed, even before calling her in Florida to break the bad news to her about hustling back to jail. But the judge and the court of appeals denied their request for a stay even before she went to jail.
On Wednesday, Sercarz said, "We're going to file briefs with the court of appeals but she will be in jail until at least mid-January."
Asked by The Daily Beast whether Bongiorno wanted to remain at her $1.25 million mansion in Boca Raton's Whitefield Country Club development for Christmas, Sercarz said: "This process has been excruciating… Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, she didn't want to go."
Unable to raise $5 million immediately after the indictment became public Nov. 18, Bongiorno had become terrified during the four days she spent in the Palm Beach jail right after being charged.
When it became apparent she needed more time to try to convince friends and family to help her post bail, the court had allowed her to remain under house arrest and wear an electronic ankle bracelet monitor at her Boca home.
At worst, she had hoped to be allowed by the judge to drive back, with electronic monitors on her car, to await trial in New York at her $2.6 million mansion in Manhasset, Long Island.
Now, unless her legal team wins on appeal, she will be transported—not necessarily on a nonstop flight—by U.S. Marshal Service aircraft to the detention center in New York.
"We don't have any trains or direct buses," said U.S. Marshal Pickering as he explained the airlift procedure. "We will have to deal with her fears as they come up."
Allan Dodds Frank is a business investigative correspondent who specializes in white-collar crime stories. He also is the former president of the Overseas Press Club of America.