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Sports, pols, film bigs trusted in Madoff

Locally connected banks also victims

Former Eagles owner Norman Braman from 2005 file photo.
Former Eagles owner Norman Braman from 2005 file photo.Read more

It turns out that hiring Rich Kotite may not have been the worst decision that former Eagles' owner Norman Braman made after all.

Braman, the megabucks Miami car dealer who owned the Eagles from 1985 through 1994, is one of a number of wealthy people, along with charities, banks and hedge funds, to lose massive sums of money in what authorities are now calling the largest Ponzi scheme ever.

Along with a charity linked to New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the company run by New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon and many others, Braman invested cash in a fund, run by legendary 70-year-old Wall Street trader Bernard Madoff, known for rewarding its clients with fabulous returns.

But now it seems that those remarkable payoffs were a mirage. Madoff was arrested Thursday - handed over to authorities by his own sons after he reportedly confessed that the investment firm was largely a Ponzi scheme that was simply paying off the older clients with the deposits from the new ones. At least $50 billion ran through the fund - a lot of that money, if not all of it, now gone.

A prominent trader on Wall Street for nearly 50 years, Madoff earned the trust not just of billionaires but also of banks, universities and philanthropies - which made his sudden arrest last week all the more shocking.

"He had a very stellar reputation," Braman told the Miami Herald. "I read this morning about Arthur Levitt, former head of the SEC, praising him.

"That's how you select people - by reputation," said Braman, who replaced Eagles coach Buddy Ryan with Kotite in 1990 and fell out of favor with Philadelphia fans, who accused him of not spending enough for quality free agents.

Braman - a Philly native who has become a civic gadfly in Miami, where he recently sued in an effort to block a new stadium for baseball's Florida Marlins - has not disclosed the amount of money he invested in the Madoff fund.

But the former Birds owner is scarcely alone. The list of names with some connection to the billions in losses is something of a Who's Who that extends from Hollywood to the U.S. Capitol to around the globe.

Some of the better-known figures allegedly scammed in some way by Madoff include:

* Lautenberg, the Democrat just re-elected to another six-year term as U.S. senator from the Garden State. His family foundation - which in turn has reportedly aided the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Catholic Relief Services, the NAACP and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center - was heavily invested in Madoff's fund.

* The company run by New York Mets' owner Fred Wilpon, Sterling Equities. The firm reported that it had lost an undisclosed amount with Madoff. The New York Times reported that Wilpon had a close association with Madoff and had invested hundreds of millions of dollars with him through the years. The newspaper speculated that the fallout could ultimately affect the free-spending rivals of the Phillies in the National League East.

* Filmmaker Steven Spielberg's Los Angeles-based charity, the Wunderkinder Foundation. It has confirmed that it invested about 70 percent of its dividend income and interest through Madoff.

* Mortimer Zuckerman, the New York real-estate developer presumably having enough headaches as owner of one of the nation's largest newspapers, the New York Daily News. He runs a charitable trust that lost an estimated $30 million thanks to a fund manager who invested with Madoff.

Other names on the list of the Madoff clients potentially facing large losses include the charitable foundation of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Brooklyn's Yeshiva University.

But perhaps more significant to the reeling economy is the number of large banks and hedge funds that invested billions in what proved to be a Ponzi scheme - including two with close ties to the Philadelphia region.

Royal Bank of Scotland, which locally owns Citizens Bank (and is also the major lender to Philadelphia Media Holdings, the parent of the Daily News and Inquirer), said that it had invested $598 million in the Madoff fund.

Meanwhile, Spain's Banco Santander - which just received approval to purchase Pennsylvania-based Sovereign Bank - said that its clients invested with Madoff through its Optimal Strategic U.S. Equity fund.

Indeed, investors are still alarmed at the ripples that the billions invested in Madoff's scheme could send through an economy already battered by the collapse of the U.S. housing market and billions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities, as well as the threatened bankruptcies of one or two of Detroit's auto giants.

"The investor psyche is already quite fragile," Alan Gayle, senior investment strategist for RidgeWorth Capital Management, told the Associated Press. "Scandals like this just add fuel to the fire."

The Madoff scandal has raised new questions about the lack of regulatory oversight on Wall Street and the greed of some investors who were eager to invest in Madoff's fund even as skeptics questioned his high rate of return.

"Many Wall Streeters suspected the wrong rigged game, though: They thought it was insider trading, not a Ponzi scheme," well-known analyst Henry Blod-get wrote on his blog last week. "And here's the best part: That's why they invested with him." *

The Associated Press contributed to this article.