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Madoff Scandal Shaking Real Estate Industry

Almost no segment of New York City’s real estate industry was spared in the Madoff scandal, which may be history’s largest Ponzi scheme: commercial brokers large and small, little-known developers and prominent families like the Wilpons and Rechlers all lost money to Bernard L. Madoff, industry executives say.

New York City
New York City

The outsize impact on the industry may have resulted largely because Mr. Madoff (pronounced MAY-doff) managed his funds much the way that real estate leaders have operated successfully for decades: He provided little information and demanded a lot of trust.

“You have a lot of wealthy people who made a lot of money on handshakes,” said Mark S. Weiss, a commercial real estate broker at Newmark Knight Frank, where several brokers had invested heavily with Mr. Madoff. There was “something about this person, pedigree and reputation that inspired trust,” he said.

Across the city, industry executives said deals had been scuttled or jeopardized because of the scandal. Residential brokers are taking calls from Madoff investors who have had to put their apartments on the market. Many developers had pledged their investments with Mr. Madoff as collateral for projects, and are now worried that their banks will call in their loans.

“The level of devastation, both financial and on a human level, is astounding,” said Robert J. Ivanhoe, a lawyer who is representing 10 developers and investors who lost $5 million to $50 million each with Mr. Madoff.

Indeed, at an industry fund-raiser at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Manhattan last weekend, much of the chatter over sushi and crudités was about money feared lost with Mr. Madoff, according to people who attended. And a Manhattan psychotherapist who counsels real estate leaders and bankers said most of the patients he has seen this week have close friends and relatives who lost money with Mr. Madoff.

The victims include executives at the global commercial brokerage CB Richard Ellis, most prominently Stephen Siegel, a major Bronx landlord who is chairman of worldwide operations at the brokerage and whose wife, Wendy, helped organize Saturday’s fund-raising dinner.

Brian S. Waterman, a principal at Newmark, also invested with Mr. Madoff. So did the Rechler family, which has been a major owner of office buildings in the region. Scott Rechler, the head of RexCorp, one of the family’s largest firms, called the family’s exposure “limited.”

Jerry Reisman, a lawyer based in Garden City, N.Y., said he was representing six commercial real estate investors and developers in the area who lost a total of $150 million to Mr. Madoff. They met Mr. Madoff through contacts at country clubs in the tristate area, he said.

“They knew him from golfing in the Hamptons. They knew him from the locker rooms,” Mr. Reisman said. “He was considered a wizard.”

Mr. Reisman said his clients were especially concerned because they counted on Madoff investments to complete some of their real estate projects, pledging their investments as collateral for projects. Those developers fear that when their banks realize that their investments with Mr. Madoff have disappeared, they will demand new collateral from other sources, Mr. Reisman said.

Finding those alternative lenders will be difficult given the financial crisis — and given that many other real estate investors have been hurt by the Madoff case.

“Many of these developers, their resources are all with Madoff,” Mr. Reisman said.

There are widespread concerns that some developers will have trouble completing projects currently under construction. Edward Blumenfeld, who runs Blumenfeld Development Group, had invested heavily with Mr. Madoff and considered him a friend. Gary Lewi, a spokesman for Mr. Blumenfeld, said he still planned to complete a shopping complex in East Harlem that is to include a Target and a Costco, as well as several other projects where construction is “in the ground.”

Beyond that, though, Mr. Blumenfeld is uncertain of what his development plans hold. His friendship with Mr. Madoff is even more uncertain, Mr. Lewi said.

“Any long-term plans are being reviewed as we conduct a far larger analysis of this scandal and the impact it could have on us and the development community as a whole,” Mr. Lewi said. “Mr. Blumenfeld was friend to a man who apparently didn’t exist.”

The Wilpon family, the major owners of the Mets, has acknowledged investing millions with Mr. Madoff. The family controls a real estate firm, Sterling Equities, whose Web site says it owns 3,000 residential units and 600,000 square feet of office space. It is unclear whether the firm’s real estate holdings are affected by the Madoff investments.

"Nail in the coffin" of New York real estate

“We are shocked by recent events and, like all investors, will continue to monitor the situation,” said Richard Auletta, a spokesman for Sterling.

Other real estate developers are finding that their charitable giving has been wiped out by Mr. Madoff. Leonard Litwin, one of the city’s largest apartment landlords and head of Glenwood Management, had nearly all of his charitable foundation’s investments managed by Mr. Madoff.

Gary Jacob, executive vice president of Glenwood, said Mr. Litwin had never met Mr. Madoff but had invested with him on the advice of a friend. The Litwin Foundation had donated money to research for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease and charities, many of them supported by the real estate industry.

“It would have no impact to us as a real estate company,” Mr. Jacob said. “But it affects the charitable giving.”

Some members of the real estate industry are receiving the news with a mix of schadenfreude and sadness for their peers. Jeffrey R. Gural, chairman of Newmark Knight Frank, the brokerage firm, said Mr. Madoff had turned his family down as investors about eight years ago because they would not invest at least $20 million. For years, he said, colleagues introduced to Mr. Madoff through relatives or country club friends had sung his praises.

“People used to brag how they were getting these great returns when everybody else was struggling,” he said. “They thought Bernie Madoff was a genius, and anybody who didn’t give them their money was a fool.”

The impact is already spreading to the residential real estate business. Brad Friedman, a lawyer representing about 100 investors primarily in New York and Florida, said several clients have already said they plan to put their apartments on the market. They depended on their Madoff investments to pay their mortgages and co-op fees.

“With that source of money frozen, they’ve got no cash,” Mr. Friedman said. “They can’t pay the electric bill. They can’t pay the mortgage.”

Other buyers have already backed out of deals because they had invested with Mr. Madoff and can no longer finance their purchases. Michele Kleier, a prominent Upper East Side broker, had buyers pull out of purchases on two $2 million apartments because they had lost money to Mr. Madoff. The first buyer put in an offer at 3 p.m. last Thursday, the day of Mr. Madoff’s arrest, only to withdraw it by 5:30 p.m.

The second set of buyers had visited an apartment three times, requested the financial information about the co-op and had the broker notify Ms. Kleier that they would be making an offer on Monday morning. On Monday, she learned that the buyers had backed out because their money was tied up with Madoff funds.

“It’s now two deals in the last four days,” Ms. Kleier said. “It’s amazing.”

Kenneth Mueller, a Manhattan psychotherapist who counsels many real estate and financial executives, said those who lost money to Mr. Madoff called his indictment “the nail in the coffin for the commercial real estate industry,” which had already been hurt by the recession.

Dr. Mueller said many patients were re-evaluating whether they can trust their business partners after Mr. Madoff’s betrayal.

“Madoff was considered a member of the family,” he said.

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