Friday, March 14, 2014 | 12:20 a.m.
NEW YORK — After a five-month-long look at what the government learned about Bernard Madoff's epic fraud, jurors are close to beginning to weigh whether five of his former employees were his conspirators or his dupes.
A Manhattan federal jury could start deliberating as soon as Friday in the first criminal trial to result from one of history's biggest frauds. Closing arguments were expected to wrap up, followed by lengthy legal instructions and possibly some deliberations before the weekend.
Madoff has said he acted alone in cheating thousands of investors out of nearly $20 billion in a decades-long Ponzi scheme. But federal prosecutors say five back-office subordinates gave him vital help in weaving his financial fiction.
"Each of these defendants played a crucial role in the fraud," Assistant U.S. Attorney John Zach told jurors in a summation last week. He said the five told thousands of lies to customers, financial institutions, regulators and the Internal Revenue Service.
The defendants are Annette Bongiorno, Madoff's longtime secretary; Daniel Bonventre, his director of operations for investments; JoAnn Crupi, an account manager; and computer programmers Jerome O'Hara and George Perez. They say they, like Madoff's investors, were fooled by a master at deceit.
Madoff and his former finance chief, star prosecution witness Frank DiPascali, made it their business "to keep the fraud as contained and cabined as humanly possible because it if gets out, we are done — we are spending 150 years in jail, as Mr. Madoff is now," one of Perez' attorneys, Larry Krantz, said in his closing argument last week.
Prosecutors say Perez and O'Hara developed computer programs to manufacture false books and records that made the fraud work. But O'Hara's lawyer, Gordon Mehler, told jurors his client was just an everyday tech worker who was "used, abused, manipulated, lied to, snookered and bamboozled" by Madoff and DiPascali.
Bonventre oversaw the account in which investors poured money, cloaked it from auditors and regulators and tapped it to help plump up the brokerage side of Madoff's business, Zach said. He said Crupi was a key player in the accounting fraud, while Bongiorno — Madoff's secretary for 40 years — was responsible for billions of dollars in fake trades and oversaw a massive rewriting of customer accounts while making more than $18 million herself.
Bongiorno's lawyer, Roland Riopelle, said she believed all the money she made was legitimate.
"She herself is a victim of the fraud," he said in his summation, adding that she saw millions "of what she thought was her own money but was really Bernie Madoff's monopoly money go up in smoke."
The fraud collapsed in December 2008 when Madoff ran out of money and confessed to FBI agents that his business was a sham. Now 75, he pleaded guilty and is serving a 150-year prison sentence.