Toomre Capital Markets LLC

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Sherman Heller

Frank Avellino, Michael Bienes and Bernie Madoff

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Michael Bienes with wife Dianne. Back in 1992, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") reached a settlement with Avellino & Bienes ("A&B"), a tiny New York accounting firm that was run by Frank Avellino and Michael Bienes. According to legal documents from that case, these two started raising money from clients, friends and relatives in the early 1960s and handed over that cash over to Bernie Madoff to invest. (This was about the same time that Bob Jaffe's future father-in-law, Boston philanthropist Carl Shapiro, gave Bernie Madoff his first funds with which were used to start his investment business.) By 1984, apparently Avellino and Bienes had ceased their accounting practice to focus exclusively on finding additional investors for Madoff.

In 1989, two other accountants Steven Mendelow and Edward Glantz and later Glantz's son Richard also began raising funds for Bernie Madoff. By the time that the S.E.C. ordered these three firms to return all funds to their investors for selling unregistered shares, some $454 million had been raised from more than thirty-two hundred investors. Apparently, the S.E.C investigation had been sparked by a confidential tip that one of the money managers was promising annual returns of up to twenty percent.

The regulators subsequently examined Madoff's books and it appears that they were satisfied when every penny was returned to the former accountant's investors. Bernie Madoff and his investment operation never were sued by the regulator and consequently never was subject to any operational restrictions. The former accountants were collectively ordered to pay $875,000 and to cease from further violations of securities laws.

Rather interestingly, Avellino & Barnes were then represented by Ira "Ike" Sorkin, the lawyer who currently represents Bernie Madoff in his criminal proceedings. In another connection between Avellino and Madoff, Lee Richards, who has been appointed by the SEC as the receiver of all Bernard Madoff Investment Securities assets, also served as the court-appointed trustee over Avellino & Bienes during its legal dispute with the federal agency, according to Bloomberg News.

What originally caught the attention of Toomre Capital Markets LLC ("TCM") about Frank Avellino and Michael Bienes was their relationship to Bernie Madoff's eventual father-in-law, Saul Alpern. Mr. Alpern was the lead partner of a Manhattan accounting firm back in the 1950's and 1960's then called Alpern & Heller. His colleague was Sherman Heller. Two of the junior accountants at the firm were named Frank Avellino and Michael Bienes. Mr Heller apparently died in the mid-1960's at the age of 46 and then in the 1970's Avellino and Bienes took over that accounting business renaming it Avellino & Bienes. According to the blog mehtafiscal in their post The End of a Sure Things: Madoff's Long Bet, one early investor with A&B and Madoff claimed that "Madoff had worked at Alpern & Heller in the late 1950s, with Avellino and Bienes, and was friendly with them [this last statement could not be independently verified]."

TCM was previously unaware that Bernie Madoff had worked at an accounting firm. (Perhaps it was this accounting firm was the source of the original connection between Carl Shapiro and Bernie Madoff?) Carl Shapiro was Madoff's original investor and also one of his last when he supposedly contributed $250mm to Madoff in November 2008. Carl Shapiro also likely was the link that connected his son-in-law, Robert Jaffe, with Bernie Madoff and eventual employment at Cohmad Securities Corp.

Various charity filings with the SEC subsequent to 1992 suggest that both Frank Avellino and Michael Bienes continued to have at least some funds invested with Bernie Madoff. Whether they played a larger role after 1992 in Madoff's investment business remains to be disclosed. However, given that their personal relationships with Madoff that apparently were far deeper than the SEC disclosed back in 1992, one is left to wonder.

Two interesting pieces of news this month contribute to this state of wonder. On Monday January 12th, Mr. Bienes, "the fabulously wealthy Fort Lauderdale benefactor", abruptly resigned from the board of the prestigious Broward Center for the Performing Arts via a short one sentence letter of resignation. Why did he suddenly resign at this time? One might also wonder just how this formerly junior accountant became so wealthy. Did he really make his millions because "he got lucky on Wall Street"? Or perhaps some of his "wealth" came from his old buddy Bernie Madoff?

The other piece of intriguing news concerns his partner Frank Avellino. Mr. Avellino too has progressed far from his younger days as an accountant at Alpern & Heller. Today he apparently owns a $4 million home in Palm Beach, a residence in New York City and another $10 million summer residence on Nantucket. Also apparently, Mr. Avellino just recently put his Nantucket residence on the market. The timing of that move too is interesting and perhaps quite innocent, particularly in these difficult economic times.

However, when one learns that Mr. Avellino also has recently been accused of bilking his house-cleaner out of $124,000 life savings, one really begins to wonder. This article in Nantucket's Inquirer and Mirror has more details of the suit filed by one Nevena Ivanova against Mr. Avellino. Apparently a few years ago, Mr. Avellino accepted some funds from Ms. Ivanova for investment. Then recently he announced that all of her money had been lost. It is unclear how exactly Mr. Avellino was supposed to invest the householder's money. Perhaps he invested it with his good buddy Bernie? If so, how then did Mr. Avellino allegedly announce on December 1st that all of her funds had been lost? Did perhaps Mr. Avellino know something about Bernie Madoff's fraud some ten days before his arrest?

Inquiring minds really would like to know more about the recent relationships between Bernie Madoff, Frank Avellino and Michael Bienes. Hopefully, more information will be forthcoming shortly.