Sunday, August 02, 2009


Financier Bernard Madoff has been sentenced to 150 years in prison for swindling billions from investors. In his blog for The New York Times, Steven M. Davidoff notes that many unsuspecting charities may have received money from Madoff, money that was not rightfully his.

If these charities benefited from Madoff's crimes, Davidoff wonders, do they have a moral or legal obligation to give back the money? Or, if they had no knowledge of his misdeeds, should the charities keep every cent?

What do you think?

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Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

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c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Phil Clutts said...

The question is academic in that, as a practical matter, the money charities received has probably been spent or at least targeted. Also, Mr. Davidoff conjectures the money was “laundered” (my word, not his) in many cases, passing through charitable foundations to (presumably) innocent individual charities. Unless the charities had reason to suspect that the money was tainted, they don’t “owe” it to the deceived Madoff investors, many if not most of whom, after all, were seeking almost unconscionable profits. It’s not like a politician accepting contributions and then discovering that one of his/her contributors was crooked or closely affiliated with an objectionable organization. In that case, the politician has at least an ethical obligation to return the funds, which, of course, were to be used for his/her professional benefit, as opposed to more altruistic purposes.

Harrisburg, NC

Charlie Seng said...

I strongly support Phil Clutts's reasonable solution to this "dilemma". I even question why anyone would find it necessary, in the first place, to bend so far over backwards to find some "unethical" basis for feeling the funds the charities obtained under these circumstances were somehow tainted. Besides, the charities had no way of knowing the circumstances of how the funds were earned, so as Mr. Clutts so aptly puts it, so the charities don't owe the Madoff investors anything. We seem to have, as a society, reached the point where anyone who has ever suffered a reversal in fortunes, for whatever reason, feels that they must be made whole.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC