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Bienes, Avellino, Madoff and The Church

Bienes Knighted By Catholic Church

Well, the Sun-Sentinel, apparently in a panic over the New York Times beating it to the story, finally reported on the connection between Fort Lauderdale philanthropist Michael Bienes and his partner, Frank Avellino, to Bernie Madoff, the $50 billion Ponzi schemer.

I've rarely seen one newspaper so derelict in reporting a major story in its own back yard -- and its offering today is nothing but a small pile of dung. More on that later; now I've got some news to report.

I've done some serious reporting on the local Madoff angle since my breaking posts. One angle I can reveal now: A major Fort Lauderdale church was an investor in Bernie Madoff through a Fort Lauderdale feeder fund that had ties to Bienes and Avellino.

That's right, a church, not a synagogue. While everyone knows that Jewish investors, charities, and interests have been devastated by the Madoff scandal, few know about the Christian side to all of this. Bienes and Avellino, after all, were both Christian (Bienes, a Jewish kid from New York, converted to Catholicism later in life) and had deep ties with local churches and the Archdiocese of Miami.  

One church that I have confirmed had money invested in a Madoff fund was the large Christ Church United Methodist in Fort Lauderdale. It was listed on documents I've seen as having invested in Madoff, originally through Avellino, who reportedly was a church member. On Friday, I called Alex Shanks, a pastor at the church. He paused after I asked about Madoff and Avellino, then told me he would call be back to talk about the situation. He didn't.

It's not known how much money the church lost, but it definitely had capital to invest. Located on NE 25 Street, it has a large tree-shaded campus that includes the Christ Church School. Even before it merged with United Methodist of Pompano in 2006, it boasted more than 2,500 members. The church serves many people from the upscale Coral Ridge neighborhood, where Avellino owned a home until 2007 (he sold it for $1.9 million).

While Avellino was apparently a Methodist, Bienes converted from Judiasm to Catholicism in 1983. He donated many millions of dollars to the Catholic Church and related charities like Holy Cross and St. Thomas Aquinas. The photograph above shows Archbishop John Favarola promoting Bienes to "Knight Commander" of the church. Pretty big deal, I guess (I wonder if he ever made Jedi Master). If you click here, you can see his wife, Dianne, receiving the same thing (only she's a Dame Commander, of course).  

One fact about Bienes: He raised money for Madoff in just about every circle he traveled. Some Bienes-recruited Madoff investors say that the Archdiocese, certain Catholic leaders (including Monsignor Vincent Kelly and his family from Ireland), and other church-related entities also had money invested in Madoff's fund. The Archdiocese on Friday, however, denied to me that it had any of its money in any Madoff-related funds. And Kelly has refused to talk about it.

Bienes, according to sources, is claiming that he has been ruined by the scandal, losing most of his savings (the NY Times cited an attorney saying the same). Some Madoff investors in Fort Lauderdale have told me he's on "suicide watch" at his $7 million Bay Colony home.

Unfortunately, the Sentinel added absolutely nothing to the Madoff story at all today. The newspaper's little article on Bienes and Avellino is hidden strangely on page 12 in the A section, with one victim quoted and the rest of it a clip job on donations that Michael and Dianne Bienes have given to local charities. It doesn't even have a byline -- as four unlucky reporters had to scrape it together, obviously in haste.

The investor named in the story praises Avellino, yet the newspaper doesn't even mention that Avellino was recently sued by his own Bulgarian housekeeper at his $10 million home in Nantucket for losing her life's savings. Crazily, it also doesn't mention that Madoff abruptly resigned from the Broward arts board. And somehow, it missed the SEC action against Bienes and Avellino in 1992 for that illegal $440 million. 

But then again, it has failed to report on the SEC action for 16 years, even as it has had numerous glowing stories published on Bienes' kindness and monetary gifts at the time the SEC was investigating. We'll have more fun with that later.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

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