MADOFF SCANDAL

Suspected fraudster Madoff to remain free on bail

A New York judge allowed alleged fraudster Bernard Madoff to remain free on bail on Wednesday, foiling repeated attempts by prosecutors to jail the investor suspected of losing up to $50 billion in a Wall Street pyramid scheme.

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AFP - Bernard Madoff may have allegedly confessed to a vast fraud, but the disgraced investor won't see the inside of a jail any time soon, lawyers say.

A judge in New York confirmed Wednesday that Madoff can remain free on bail in his seven-million-dollar Manhattan apartment, rejecting yet another attempt by prosecutors to have him detained pending trial.

And lawyers believe Madoff, 70, could well escape jail for many months more simply by spooling out the legal process.

"For someone like Mr Madoff it's difficult even to spend a day in jail," said Ross Albert, a partner with Morris, Manning and Martin law firm, and a former prosecutor. "I think the strategy is to continue delay."

As prosecutors delve into the alleged 50-billion-dollar pyramid fraud, there are signs that Madoff is plea bargaining and doing everything he can to put off going behind bars.

Madoff's defense agreed this week to let prosecutors extend by 30 days -- until mid-February -- the period in which they have to come up with an indictment, a sure sign that the two sides are talking.

A magistrate judge said the defense and prosecution were "engaging in discussions concerning a possible disposition," indicating a plea bargain in which Madoff would plead guilty in return for a lighter sentence.

Such extensions are sometimes repeated numerous times and even if there is no bargain, an actual trial is unlikely to start until late this year at the earliest, lawyers say.

So while prosecutors believe they have an open-shut case against Madoff -- who allegedly confessed to scamming investors for decades in a so-called Ponzi scheme -- he may be able to drag out proceedings and remain in his luxury home for the foreseeable future.

Albert said outrage from victims of Madoff's alleged swindle put "intense public scrutiny" on prosecutors.

However, "for a trial to start six months from now would be ambitious. I'd be surprised."

Robert Mintz, who heads the white collar crime practice at McCarter and English law firm, predicted a trial could be delayed for as long as a year while prosecutors try to unravel Madoff's alleged fraud and trace the missing billions.

"Prosecutors can live without his cooperation, certainly. They undoubtedly have the upper hand here since he's facing a lifetime in jail and they undoubtedly have sufficient evidence to convict him," he said.

"But they'd like to understand how the scheme was carried out for as long as it was ... and Madoff may have the only keys to that."

Ultimately, Madoff is highly unlikely to avoid a sentence putting him away for the rest of his life, analysts say.

Unless he dies first.

"He's pretty old too, so if he can put off the whole process for a while," Albert said. "I don't mean to be macabre or morbid."

Such an eventuality could have repercussions beyond disappointing a US public keen to see Madoff punished, Albert said.

Kenneth Lay, the central figure in the collapse of the Enron energy company, died in 2006 of a heart attack, before he could be sentenced for massive fraud.

As a result, his heirs had far more bargaining power against those seeking to recover money from his estate and "they were able to reach a more favorable deal,"  Albert said.

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