Ira Lee Sorkin has the challenging task of representing one of the most hated men in America: Bernard L. Madoff, who is accused of ripping off hundreds of celebrities, nonprofit organizations and ordinary investors through a $50 billion Ponzi scheme.
One of Sorkin's colleagues had a succinct response when asked how he would handle the case of Madoff, 70, who was turned in by his sons and allegedly admitted his crime to FBI agents.
"I'd pray," he said.
But if Sorkin is concerned about the task he faces, he did not show any trace in a more than one-hour interview last week.
Indeed, Sorkin, the 65-year-old former head of the New York office of the Securities and Exchange Commission known as Ike, spoke in a relaxed, measured manner about a wide range of topics.
"A lawyer's first role is to protect the client," Sorkin said, but "sometimes there is a perception issue that may be a part of protecting your client's rights."
Legal observers agree that, when all is said and done, Sorkin eventually will have to accept a deal that includes substantial jail time for Madoff. For the moment, however, they give him credit for keeping his client out of jail since his Dec. 11 arrest.
A keen observer of the press and public opinion, Sorkin said he actually proposed stricter bail conditions than he had initially negotiated with the government.
According to Sorkin, prosecutors had agreed to release Madoff on a $10 million bond secured by his East 64th Street apartment, which is in the name of his wife, Ruth. The original agreement permitted Madoff to travel within three federal court districts in the metropolitan area.
But with the rising public outcry against Madoff's continued freedom, Sorkin said he agreed to have his client confined to his home and to foot the bill for private security guards to enforce the arrangement.
Sorkin said he agreed to the strict bail conditions "in anticipation" that the government, in response to the mounting public pressure, would seek to revoke bail.
Sorkin said he believed it was in Madoff's "best interests" to have strict confinement conditions in place should the government pursue that course.
The government did move to revoke bail after it discovered that Ruth Madoff had mailed $1 million in watches and jewelry on Christmas Eve to family members and friends in violation of an SEC freeze on his assets.
Sorkin told the court the gifts were "a few sentimental personal items" and said that the decision to mail them had been an honest mistake. In any case, he said in the interview that prosecutors were using the episode as an "excuse" to seek the jailing of his increasingly unpopular client.
But by then, the strict conditions had been in place since Dec. 19 -- five days before prosecutors charged that Ms. Madoff had violated the freeze order -- and the government could not convince the court that the status quo should be changed. Southern District Magistrate Judge Ronald Ellis and then-District Court Judge Lawrence M. McKenna kept the bail arrangement in place with several relatively minor additions.
It was "no mean feat" for Sorkin, who is representing "a guy who has apparently confessed to a $50 billion fraud, ostensibly violated a court order, and may have assets abroad," said one white-collar criminal defense attorney in Manhattan.
Sorkin "deserves a pat on the back for keeping Mr. Madoff out of jail," said another.
The representation of Madoff has brought other trials with it, Sorkin said. He has received one death threat that warranted reporting to the FBI, and about a dozen anti-Semitic e-mails.
The widespread publicity even ensnared Sorkin at one point.
His name was on a list of more than 13,000 Madoff client accounts in a filing made in the bankruptcy of Bernard L. Madoff Securities, which led to articles questioning whether he had an ethical conflict.
Sorkin swatted away that notion, saying the account referred to in the bankruptcy filing was a retirement account belonging to his father and then his mother after his father died in 2001. As his mother's health declined, he said he received her mail for several years before her death in 2007, when the account was closed out.
"There is no conflict," Sorkin said, "because I was never a client, customer or had any beneficial interest in an account at the Madoff firm."
Sorkin also reported that, despite widespread concern in Jewish circles that Madoff has brought shame on all Jews, he has received no criticism from members of his temple or from board members of the American Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is chairman.
KNOWN MADOFF SINCE 1980s
Sorkin has known Madoff since the 1980s, when a former partner, Howard Squadron, of Squadron Ellenoff Plesent & Sheinfeld, introduced the two. Sorkin declined to comment on his retainer from Madoff or other aspects of his work for him.
To assist him on the Madoff matter, Sorkin has enlisted three members of the 15-lawyer securities enforcement and white-collar defense group of Dickstein Shapiro, which he co-heads.
The team includes partners Daniel J. Horowitz, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan, and Mauro M. Wolfe, who was an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey and previously worked for the SEC in Philadelphia. Associate Nicole P. De Bello rounds out the group.
Among the matters Sorkin is handling for Madoff is the Southern District criminal case and a civil action filed by the SEC. The lawyers also are responsible for representing Madoff's interests in connection with the bankruptcy of his securities firm.
The next court date in Madoff's case is March 13 when the government faces a deadline for filing an indictment against him. Prosecutors have twice asked for a 30-day extension of the deadline, citing the need for "additional discussions regarding a possible disposition."
Sorkin also represents Ruth Madoff. Massachusetts securities regulators reported last week that in the days before the scandal broke, Ms. Madoff had withdrawn $15.5 million from an account she had in a brokerage firm in which Mr. Madoff holds a minority stake, including $10 million the day before her husband was arrested.
Sorkin had no comment on the Massachusetts report.
As sprawling as the Madoff case has become, Sorkin has other significant matters on his plate. He said he is representing 15 clients who are the subject of either SEC or criminal investigations. And he is preparing for trial in a matter before Southern District Judge P. Kevin Castel. The case, which involves an SEC civil enforcement proceeding, will test a new rule regulating the issuance of new securities to cover short positions.
Sorkin spent close to 11 years at the SEC and at the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District. During his two years at the helm in New York, the SEC developed the so-called Yuppie Five case, which involved the prosecution of an associate who had been at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
"This points out that young professionals want to make it quickly, they're not willing to wait," Sorkin said to The New York Times in 1986. "They want the rewards sooner, and they don't want to make the effort. Greed knows no bounds. There's always someone who makes more than you do. Investment banking is the new gold mine."
The office's investigations also led to criminal prosecutions against E.F. Hutton & Co. and Kidder Peabody & Co., as well as a civil enforcement action against Robert Brennan, the head of First Jersey Securities.
Sorkin said he tried cases more frequently as a prosecutor than he has in his 28 years in private practice.
He recalled trying 15 cases in his first 11 months at the U.S. Attorney's Office. By contrast, he has tried six cases during his last eight years in private practice.
Discussing the decision on whether to go to trial, Sorkin quoted famed Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, who explained his heavy reliance on a running game as stemming from the fact that two of three possible outcomes for passes -- an incompletion or an interception -- are detrimental.
Likewise, Sorkin said, with sentencing guidelines in effect, a plea is likely to result in less jail time than going to trial and getting convicted, but the choice is ultimately up to the client.
'A LARGE PERSONALITY'
A wide-range of Sorkin's peers in the white-collar and securities bars described him as an outsized personality who is effective because he is so likeable.
Sorkin is "very gregarious and good natured," which serves him well in dealings with prosecutors and regulators as well as juries, said Robert G. Morvillo, of Morvillo Abramowitz Grand Iason & Silberberg.
But he also has "the residual toughness necessary in a criminal defense lawyer," added Morvillo.
"After two tours of duty at the SEC, one at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan, a stint as in-house counsel and years in private practice, Sorkin brings all different perspectives to the table," said David M. Brodsky, who has known Sorkin since the two worked together as Southern District prosecutors.
Brodsky, of Latham & Watkins, agreed that Sorkin has a "very large personality -- he doesn't just greet you with a handshake, but a hug."
John R. Wing, a partner at Lankler Siffert & Wohl, described Sorkin as "one of the busiest lawyers in town" who was one of the "two top lawyers in New York" that clients look to when they have SEC matters. Wing represents Madoff's brother, Peter, who has not been charged.
Among the cases Sorkin has tried in recent years was his defense of a former banker at Merrill Lynch & Co. accused of participating in an Enron related fraud. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2007 reversed the conviction of Sorkin's client as well as those of three co-defendants.
This past fall, Sorkin took a case to trial that was outside his usual repertoire. It involved an arms broker who was convicted in November of trying to sell millions of dollars in weaponry to revolutionaries in Colombia.
Sorkin declined to explain how he got the case other than to say "it came into the office."
The client, Monzer al-Kassar, was convicted but plans to appeal.
Sorkin said that some of his most important victories were cases in which he persuaded prosecutors or regulators not to press public charges. He declined to elaborate other than to say the cases involved "a number of high-ranking individuals in corporate America."
One of the cases Sorkin was able to resolve by negotiating a settlement with the SEC had a tie to Madoff.
The case involved an accountant, Frank Avellino, and his partner, who raised $441 million from 3,200 clients which they placed with Madoff on a promise that their clients would receive a return of between 13.5 percent and 20 percent a year, according to a New York Times report.
Sorkin negotiated a deal with the SEC that required Avellino to shut down his firm, return the funds to his investors and pay a $350,000 fine. Once the settlement was reached, the Times reported, the SEC inquiry "petered out."
Madoff was not sued by the SEC in that case.
For more coverage on the Madoff case, visit Law.com's Madoff Watch.