Madoff's Man

South Florida multimillionaire Michael Bienes never cut ties with Bernie Madoff, even after the SEC shut him down.

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 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.

Friends of Bienes — all of them well-heeled — generally don't want to talk about the situation. When New Times called longtime chum and onetime business partner Fred Millsaps, his wife Audrey answered the phone. She said 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."

Asked if she and Fred had invested in Madoff's fund, she responded, "Bienes and my husband talked about it, but the decision was made not to invest, thankfully."

Gauging Madoff's damage to South Florida isn't easy, but there were definitely hundreds of victims. Foundations run by Miami's most wealthy citizens — including Stephen Muss, the Potamkins, and Norman Braman — lost tens of millions. And if Bienes is truly wiped out, 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 $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 recently opened the Bienes Center for the Arts.

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

Piecing together Bienes's 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 South Florida in 1974 and permanently settled in Fort Lauderdale in 1987, according to old newspaper accounts.

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

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 veneers.

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

The Bieneses were well known for the parties they threw at their Fort Lauderdale 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."

Local newspapers 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 Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, Miami City Ballet, and Opera Guild of Fort Lauderdale.

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," wrote the Sun-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 karats all the way."

Interestingly, neither the Sentinel nor the Miami Herald reported the SEC action in 1992.

Stefanelli, who lost $14 million, attended some of those parties. He says Bienes, whom he once vacationed with in Brazil, confided 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 it had any of its funds invested with Madoff.

"You want to know how it feels?" Stefanelli says. "How does it feel to be a rich, wealthy millionaire one day and the next day you have nothing, or next to nothing."

The 76-year-old Stefanelli also invested his children's money with Madoff. Their meeting was arranged by Bienes in 1992 after the SEC action. He invested directly with Madoff, whom he says deserves to be treated like a murderer. "My sons want to kill me right now, but my daughters are a little more understanding," he says. "My wife is ill, and I don't have much left. I have some property, but that's not easy to sell. I have enough for a few years, and I don't think I'll last much longer than that."

Through it all, he has faith that Bienes didn't knowingly lead him to desolation. But like everybody else, he can't be sure.

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