Support group helps Madoff’s victims |

Support group helps Madoff’s victims

ASPEN ” Ed Calesa met five Aspen friends for lunch soon after they learned they lost a “substantial amount” of money in the Bernard Madoff investing scandal, and he realized from their reaction that he had to help them cope.

When it came time to order lunch, two of his five companions ordered only drinks. “And these are Aspen jocks. They aren’t the 2 a.m.-at-the-Caribou crowd,” Calesa said.

It’s easy to bash the rich, but the people stung in the Madoff scandal are facing the same fundamental problem as a factory worker who has been laid off in Detroit or a contractor in Aspen trying to figure out how to pay bills, Calesa said. The amount of their losses may be different, but they are all trying to figure out how to stay afloat.

“I took a severe body blow but I didn’t get wiped out,” Calesa said. “Some of the people I know got completely wiped out.”

Some of the Aspenites stung by the scheme are professionals who are returning to work; others were forced to file personal bankruptcy, according to Calesa.

So to help himself and others cope, Calesa, 67, of Basalt, started the Phoenix Group on Google for people affected by the Madoff ordeal. They share thoughts, post media reports and brainstorm on how to proceed on legal matters.

“The purpose of this group,” reads the Web page, “is to create an information exchange in one place for the many issues that we are all facing with the goal to recover part of our investment, punish Madoff, and help each other with technical and emotional support. We are united by a common issue, Madoff MADE OFF with our money and that has severe and different complications for all our lives. United we can be stronger as individuals.”

The group started with 10 people shortly after Madoff was arrested Dec. 11 and has swelled to more than 100. At least half are tied to Aspen or were referred to the group by Aspen friends.

Calesa contributed an essay to the group’s site that outlines how he is dealing with his losses. He said it has been well-received. The first step was to admit he hit rock bottom and release his emotions so he could move on. Second was to drastically cut expenses and, third, sell assets. Fourth, he looked for new ways to generate income and, finally, he has set a time frame to recover.

Just having a plan is a huge relief, said Calesa, who is the co-founder and chairman of the board of a business that sells medical devices.

Calesa was at the top of Aspen Mountain when he got a call that Madoff had been arrested. He was in “absolute disbelief,” he said.

The bad news just piled on from there. “We got robbed by Madoff; we got raped by the SEC,” Calesa said, referring to the Securities and Exchange Commission. A whistle-blower approached the SEC months before Madoff’s arrest and warned that Madoff was engaged in a scheme that could crumble. Regulators ignored the warning.

Since then, Madoff’s investors have learned that they may be liable to repay the funds they withdrew from his investment portfolio. And this week, the victims names were published when court materials were released to the public.

“This is collateral damage on steroids,” Calesa said of the string of events after Madoff’s arrest. “How many ways are they going to rape a person for making an investment?”

Calesa said there is one point he wanted to clear up about the situation. He said investors have been portrayed as greedy because they were investing in a scheme that was too good to be true. He said he was getting a 10 percent return per year, which isn’t too good to be true.

Calesa was brought into the investment circle 12 years ago by friends in Aspen. He himself tried to bring nine friends into Madoff’s investment group, but eight were rejected and only one was accepted. It was part of the “b.s.” and part of the genius of Madoff to reject people and make the investment club appear exclusive, according to Calesa. He said he met with Madoff just five weeks before the man’s arrest. Madoff was charming, and Calesa was thinking of making additional investments. “I didn’t, thankfully,” he said.

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