GREENWICH - (AP) - Walter Noel Jr. and his wife Monica hadit all: Luxurious houses on Connecticut's wealthy coast, Palm Beachand the Hamptons, a Park Avenue pied-a-terre and, most of all, ahilltop retreat on an exclusive island in the Caribbean named aftera goddess. They hobnobbed with Mick Jagger and Tommy Hilfiger, whosounded a bit jealous of their view.
The couple's five tall, attractive daughters mostly marriedforeign men in high social circles, adding to an extraordinarynetwork of international connections that along with remarkablyconsistent returns helped Noel expand his New York-based moneymanagement firm with billions of investments from the elite aroundthe world.
"They almost were like a fashion magazine version of a verywealthy, prosperous attractive family," said David PatrickColumbia, who runs New York Social Diary.com, a site that observesthe lives of the rich. "They're very well liked, very popular."
That world is now in jeopardy as investors line up to sue overthe $7 billion in client funds that Noel's Fairfield GreenwichGroup invested with Bernard Madoff, the alleged architect of whatinvestigators say may be the largest Ponzi scheme in history.Madoff is accused of duping investors out of as much as $50 billionby paying returns to certain investors out of the principalreceived from others.
The lawsuits filed against Noel and his company accuse them ofignoring obvious red flags with Madoff and unjustly enrichingthemselves of at least $1 billion, and say Fairfield GreenwichGroup failed to provide even minimal scrutiny of Madoff. Investorssay the firm misled shareholders about monitoring the investments,all while collecting lucrative investing fees.
"I don't think they were active participants in the fraud,"said Robert Finkel, attorney for a retirement trust fund that lost$200,000. "They're probably 'hear no evil, see no evil.' "
Noel had a business relationship with Madoff for more than 20years, according to one of the lawsuits. Fairfield Greenwich Groupearned hundreds of millions of dollars and possibly more than $1billion in fees for raising large sums of money from investors thatwas invested with Madoff, according to the lawsuit.
Fairfield Greenwich says it performed extensive due diligenceand, like many others, was victimized by a sophisticated criminalscheme. The company says Noel and other partners invested about $60million of their own money with Madoff.
But over the years, there were warning signs. Experts who lookedat Madoff concluded his claimed investment strategy wasstatistically impossible, the lawsuits claim.
Michael Markov, chief executive of Markov ProcessesInternational, said his company analyzed one of FairfieldGreenwich's funds that invested with Madoff in 2006 and concludedthe returns were most likely not real. Such returns would haverequired perfect foresight and more option contracts than existedin the market, he said.
"It was impossible to replicate," Markov said.
There were other signs, too: The lawsuits say Madoff's firmcould not have bought and sold the volume of options it claimed torun its strategy because the total of necessary trades on any givenday would have far exceeded the publicly reported total tradingvolume in the market for those days, according to one of thelawsuits.
One hedge fund adviser was shocked to discover in 2007 that theentire internal audit function at Madoff's company involved a firmwith three employees, including a 78-year-old man living inFlorida, a secretary and a 47-year-old accountant. Newspaperarticles dating back to 1992 raised issues about Madoff'soperation.
Noel's firm has not been charged in the Madoff case. FBI agentshave not contacted Fairfield Greenwich, according to a person closeto the firm who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was notauthorized to speak about the matter. The person said regulatorswith the Securities and Exchange Commission did visit the company'sheadquarters in New York recently, but said they were not from theenforcement division.
Federal authorities should investigate Fairfield Greenwich andothers who invested client money with Madoff, said Stephen A.Weiss, a New York attorney who represents Madoff investors.
"There are many compelling reasons why federal authoritiesshould investigate entities like Fairfield who oiled the Madoffcapital machine," Weiss said. "It seems evident that they wereeither complicit or grossly negligent in not undertaking duediligence that would have uncovered the scheme. Of course, I canthink of several hundred million reasons why Walter Noel wasincentivized to look the other way."
Noel, a 78-year-old Tennessee-born financier, declined aninterview request through his company, and did not return messagesleft at his home. Friends described him as well liked in thewealthy social circles he frequented.
Family friend George Ball compared Noel to Jimmy Stewart'scharacter in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life."
"He's a very decent person, very caring person, perhaps naivein some ways, but far from a fool," Ball said. "I think he is onbalance a victim."
Noel's family has been spending most of its time in Greenwichthese days, in an 8,600-square-foot colonial on prestigious RoundHill Road. The eight bedroom, nine and one-half bath home had amarket value of $6 million in 2005. When they're not there, they'reat their hilltop retreat on the exclusive island of Mustique, whichthey named Yemanja for the goddess of the seas in Brazilianfolklore.
Monica Noel, who raised in Brazil by wealthy Swiss parents,recently described to Town and Country Magazine how she decoratedher holiday table there with palm tree leaves, red butterflies andmoving snakes. She also talked about shopping from New York toFlorida for bamboo side tables and an African tribal stool placednear an infinity-edge pool that followed the curve of themountainside.
"They've got the best view on the island," Hilfiger, aneighbor and frequent guest, told the magazine.
It's not clear how long it will take for the lawsuits to windthrough the courts, but if Noel is found liable, he could be forcedto dip into his personal wealth to pay damages. Those who know himsuggested that he may have simply trusted Madoff, and do notbelieve he willingly engaged in fraud.
Ball compared Noel's longtime relationship with Madoff to thatof an old reliable truck in the barn that the owner assumes isreliable: "Familiarity leads to comfort," he said.
That explanation is not likely to satisfy investors who lostlarge sums of money.
"They're under enormous pressure and stress," said RobinChandler Duke, a family friend who spoke to Noel last week. "Ithink he will be in lawsuits forever."