Madoff's Man

Fort Lauderdale multimillionaire Michael Bienes never cut ties with Bernie Madoff — even after the SEC shut him down.

Florida corporate records show that Avellino ran the Kenn Jordan Foundation from his former address in Fort Lauderdale. It was dissolved in 2001. Avellino and Bienes also ran other partnerships, including Mayfair Bookkeeping Services, from that same address before switching it over to Avellino's home address in Palm Beach last year.

The Mayfair firm also does business in London, where the Bieneses own a home and have donated millions to the London opera scene. Madoff, incidentally, also has a headquarters in London, specifically — where else? — in the Mayfair financial district.

Interestingly, an early registered agent listed on companies run by Bienes and Avellino was Keith Wasserstrom, the disgraced former Hollywood commissioner who was convicted in 2007 of official misconduct. His involvement ended in the mid-1990s.

Archbishop John Favalora awards Michael Bienes the Star of St. Gregory, signifying his knighthood in the Catholic Church.
Archbishop John Favalora awards Michael Bienes the Star of St. Gregory, signifying his knighthood in the Catholic Church.

Well-heeled friends of Bienes' generally don't want to talk about the situation. When I called longtime chum and one-time business partner Fred Millsaps, his wife, Audrey answered the phone. She told me her husband didn't want to discuss Bienes or Madoff.

"He's very distressed about it," she said. "Many people are very distressed about it."

I asked her if she and Fred were invested in Madoff's fund.

"Bienes and my husband talked about it, but the decision was made not to invest, thankfully," she said.

Gauging the damage the Madoff scandal has done to South Florida isn't easy to determine, but there were definitely hundreds of victims. If Bienes is truly wiped out, then that alone counts as a tragedy for many charities.

Bienes told a London publication in 2005 that he and his wife, Dianne, had donated some $30 million to causes in South Florida. Indeed, they gave enough money to have their names etched in plaques all over town.

The couple donated $1 million to the Broward County Library, where the downtown campus has the Bienes Museum of the Modern Book. As for the Catholic Church, Bienes gave $4 million to Holy Cross Hospital for the Michael and Dianne Bienes Comprehensive Cancer Center. More recently, they poured $2.5 million into St. Thomas Aquinas High School, which then opened the Bienes Center for the Arts.

The Archdiocese of Miami knighted Bienes and his wife recently, not a small feat for a Jewish kid from New York.

Piecing together Bienes' life isn't easy. He became a certified public accountant and worked at a New York firm with Madoff's father-in-law, Saul Alpern. He and Avellino met Madoff at the firm and began funneling investments to him in the 1960s.

Bienes was originally married to a Jewish woman and had children before a divorce. Sources say he has little to no contact with his children.

He then met and married Dianne Dydo. The couple, who have no children, began visiting Fort Lauderdale in 1974 and settled here permanently in 1987, according to old newspaper accounts.

"They were thought of as these wacky people who would give away money," one of the Madoff victims says.

Before they left for London, Dianne took elocution lessons to learn to speak with a British accent. At one point, both of them had their teeth capped with white "veneers."

"They were these big, white Chic­let things — they could barely talk with them," the source says.

The Bieneses were well-known for the parties they threw at their Bay Colony home, which is splayed across two lots, one with the 6,000-square-foot house, the other with a 10,000-square-foot "party pavilion" they built in 1991. The estate includes a large indoor pool, a climate-controlled wine closet, and a cold-storage compartment for Dianne's furs.

In a 1993 article about the Bienes estate, the Sun-Sentinel described the home as "an elegant configuration of stately columns, towering picture windows and expansive terraces that seem to go on... and on... and on."

The Sentinel, and to a lesser extent the Miami Herald, routinely wrote glowingly of the couple's home and the parties they held in the early 1990s, when the Bieneses were donating millions to the Broward County Public Library, the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, the Miami City Ballet, and the Opera Guild of Fort Lauderdale. An example from the Sentinel: "How can you not feel good at a Bienes' party? The food is always superb. The service, impeccable. You never worry where to dump that canapé toothpick or that empty glass. Someone always appears to whisk it away. Tuesday night, chefs filled your plate at the buffet, and an attendant carried it to your table for you. All you had to do was chew."

One night in 1995, in what seems an incredibly symbolic stroke, the couple threw a "Gatsby Gala," celebrating those times of legendary parties — and legendary excess — that precipitated the Great Depression.

"The pool was covered with a dance floor, Jerry Wayne played the music of long ago," society writer Martha Gross wrote in the Sentinel. "The hooch flowed like water, and flappers swarmed about... The dinner was exquisite. Gold service plates and table wear, gold-tipped napkins, gold runners between the bowls of roses. You've got the picture — 24 carats all the way."

Interestingly, neither newspaper reported the SEC action in 1992.

Bienes' friend Stefanelli attended some of those parties. He says Bienes, whom he once vacationed with in Brazil, confided in him that the Catholic Church was heavily invested, as was Monsignor Vincent Kelly of Fort Lauderdale, along with Kelly's relatives in Ireland. The Archdiocese of Miami denied that it had any of its funds invested with Madoff.

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