Following close on the heels of the Massachusetts regulator’s action filed last week against Madoff feeder-fund Fairfield Greenwich and related individuals, on April 6, 2009, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo initiated a civil action in New York (New York County) Supreme Court against J. Ezra Merkin and Madoff feeder fund Gabriel Capital Corporation. The AG’s April 6 press release, which links to the complaint and accompanying exhibits, can be found here.
The complaint alleges that over the course of many years beginning in the 90s and going through December 2008, Merkin earned $470 million in management and incentive fees, representing to investors and to nonprofits on whose boards he sat that he was managing their money when in fact he was simply handing much of the money over to be managed by Bernard Madoff, whom Merkin "failed to adequately oversee, audit or investigate."
The complaint alleges that through his "misrepresentations, concealment, self-dealing, reckless conduct and gross negligence," Merkin "abused the trust of investors" and "breached the fiduciary duties" he owed to the nonprofits on whose boards he sat. As a result, the complaint alleges, investors lost approximately $2.4 billion.
Merkin not only misrepresented his role as a money manager, but also, according to the complaint, concealed Madoff’s critical role in (supposedly) managing the funds. The complaint also alleges that not only was Madoff perhaps uniquely aware of many of the "red flags" about Madoff (including his uncanny returns, his suspicious clearing of trades every quarter end, and the suspicious identity of his auditor), but he also received numerous warnings about Madoff from "his closest and most trusted advisors." The complaint alleges that Merkin disregarded these warnings because his "financial incentive to keep funds with Madoff blinded him."
The complaint alleges that the Ascot funds, one of the groups of funds Merkin founded and supposedly managed, turned virtually all of its investor funds over to Madoff to handle. Of the $1.7 billion in the Ascot funds as of May 2008, $215 million, or about 12 percent, belonged to 35 nonprofit groups, of which more than half ($115 billion) belong to organizations on whose board Merkin sat as a director. The complaint alleges that "Merkin embedded himself in charitable boards and used those positions to solicit new investments."
The complaint charges Merkin with violations of the Martin Act for fraudulent conduct in connection with the sale of securities; with other statutory violations for "persistent fraud in the conduct of business"; and with violations of New York’s Not-for-Profit Corporation Law and breaches of fiduciary duty in connection with Merkin’s service on the boards of certain nonprofit entities. The complaint seeks payment of damages and disgorgement of fees, restitution and other equitable relief.
The NYAG’s complaint obviously presents a host of factual and legal issues. Among other things, it also raises some potentially complex and even vexing insurance complications as well.
Merkin will obviously seek to resort to his firm’s D&O and/or E&O coverage in connection with his defense against the AG’s claims. However, his firm’s insurance coverage may already be under significant pressure as a result of the extensive civil litigation already pending against him and his firm.
Moreover, his firm’s insurance coverage would only cover him as excess insurance in connection with the allegations against him in his capacity as a director of the referenced nonprofit entities. Insofar as he is named as a defendant in those capacities, his firm’s policy would cover him, if at all, after both the nonprofit’s available insurance and indemnification obligations were exhausted.
In other words, as a result of the allegations against him in his capacity as a director of those nonprofits, he would as a theoretical matter be in a position to attempt to resort to those organization’s insurance policies as well as to seek indemnification from those organizations.
The potential implications that these nonprofits insurance policies (and even indemnification obligations) would be called upon to respond to the claims against Merkin would raise a host of complex issues, including, for example, allocation issues (owing to the fact that Merkin is named as a defendant in multiple capacities). But as a strictly theoretical matter – and without expressing any opinion as to the merits of the effort or the justice it would or would not represent – Merkin certainly might well seek to access the various nonprofits’ insurance policies, at least to the extent he is named as a defendant in his capacities as a director of the nonprofits. However, even to the extent the policies afforded coverage in connection with this claim it would only be for Merkin as an individual and to the extent of his insured capacity under each particular policy, and it would not in any event extend to his funds.
One additional complicating factor, at least as a preliminary matter, is that the various nonprofit organizations are not referenced by name in the complaint. This initial hurdle is likely surmountable through discovery, and seemingly would quickly be overcome. (According to an April 7, 2009 Wall Street Journa article about the AG’s law suit, which can be found here, the institutions on whose Boards Merkin sat and which had funds invested with Merkin included New York University, New York Law School, Yeshiva University and Bard College.) Whether or not the potentially affected policies would in fact respond to these claims would of course have to be determined according to the applicable allegations and the applicable policy language.
Ironically, as least some of these nonprofit institsutions have separtely initiated their own actions against Merkin and his funds — for example, New York Law School (refer here for the complaint) and New York University (refer here) have each filed suit against Merkin . These separate actions against Merkin would likely trigger the insured vs. insured exclusion found in most D&O insurance policies and therefore would not themselves implicate coverage. The irony is that these same institutions, who are pursuing substantially the same claims against Merkin as is the NYAG, could see their insurance policies accessed and potentially depleted by the NYAG’s complaints, assuming for the sake of discussion that the policies are in fact implicated as discussed here.
A detailed and particularly compelling portrait of the long relationship between Madoff and Merking is set out in New York Magazine’s February 22, 2009 article entitled "The Monster Mensch" (here). The article describes Merkin as "an intellectual showman" and a "marvel of erudition" who commanded respect as a civil and philanthropic leader and as Chariman of GMAC, the finance arm of General Motors. He was, according to a friend quoted in the article, the "wisest man on Wall Street." Which may explain a lot, unintentionally and in retrospect, about Wall Street.
I have in any event added the NYAG’s complaint to my roster of Madoff-related lawsuits, which can be accessed here. (The list also includes a separate action filed against Merkin, Gabriel and the funds’ auditor on April 6 by publisher and real estate magnate Mortimer Zuckerman, who claims in his complaint that he lost $40 through his investments with Merkin.)I note that this list gets considerably longer every day, as new complaints continue to arrive. Special thanks to the many readers who continue to provide me with copies of the new lawsuits, particularly to Jon Jacobson of the Greenberg Traurig firm.
And Finally: Although arguably it has nothing to do with Merkin himself or any of the foregoing, I nevertheless feel compelled to alert readers to the interesting and somewhat peculiar meaning that the work "merkin" has in the English language.
According to Wikipedia (here), a "merkin" is "a pubic wig, originally worn by prostitutes, after shaving the genitalia to eliminate lice or disguise the marks of syphilis." The Wikipedia entry helpfully provides a picture of "a mock merkin."
Now you know.
Special thanks to the loyal reader who pointed out this fact – which, upon further reflection, may not be quite so unrelated after all.