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New York • Everyone's mad at Irving Picard.
To be fair, his job is thankless. He is the court-appointed bloodhound in charge of hunting down money for the victims of Bernard Madoff, a man who was so skilled at hiding money that he kept the biggest scam in the history of American finance going for at least two decades.
Wall Street hates him. Picard has sued more than a dozen banks, including several whose big link to the Ponzi scheme was one step removed helping people bet on funds that bet on the fund run by Madoff.
Fans of the New York Mets, which have enough problems on the field, are angry at him for suing the team's owners for $1 billion, just when they are trying to find new owners and are still reeling from their own Madoff-related losses.
And most bizarrely, some of the people Madoff ripped off say Picard has screwy ideas about the law and is making them victims all over again by demanding they hand back "fictitious profits" that many have already spent.
A little more than two years into the job, the 69-year-old Picard, who was plucked from obscurity to recover the money, has become America's most unlikely celebrity lawyer, and perhaps its most underrated.
He has filed more than 1,000 suits in 30 countries, and defied expectations by bringing in $10 billion so far. That's half of what he estimates investors lost in principal when Madoff was arrested, though not as impressive compared with the phony $65 billion that Madoff claimed they had.
To make a bigger dent, Picard will have to wrest money from those banks he's sued. It won't be easy. Picard says they saw plenty of red flags and had an obligation to warn investors. The banks say Picard has gotten his facts wrong and his legal logic is flawed. Some prominent attorneys seem to agree.
"He's pushing the envelope," says Harvey Miller, a well-known bankruptcy lawyer at Weil, Gotshal & Manges who has known Picard for decades. "What is the duty of banks and financial institutions? It's a gray area of the law."
Self-effacing and mild-mannered, Picard is not the first person you would associate with aggressive legal tactics and a ruthless hunt for money. Then again, he's difficult to pin down, a blend of seemingly conflicting characteristics.
Picard, a lawyer at Baker & Hostetler, turned down an interview request from The Associated Press, but two dozen friends, acquaintances and colleagues who did agree to talk describe a man whose deferential manner belies his tenacity, someone who can seem alternately pragmatic and idealistic, shrewd and empathetic.
"I don't know personally what it's like to lose everything," he told Geraldine Ponto, a colleague at Baker, referring to Madoff victims. "But I understand it in others. It's in my DNA."
Picard is the youngest child of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Classmates of Picard remember a modest, quiet kid with an appetite for hard work.
After the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University law school, he landed a job as a lawyer at the Securities and Exchange Commission, where he rose to oversee a legal team handling bankruptcy cases. He gained a reputation as someone who wasn't hidebound by the agency's old practices, and for a human touch.
Charles Tatelbaum, a lawyer trying to get money back from a Mafia-linked trucking firm overseen by Picard's lawyers after it fell into bankruptcy, recalls a half-dozen calls from Picard after news broke that the mob had put a contract out on his life and everyone else seemed to be shunning him.
"I couldn't get a date for six months. My veterinarian wouldn't even see my cat," Tatelbaum says. "But Irving would call 'Are you all right? Is there anything I can do?' "
Colleagues from those years fill in another aspect of his personality: He is whistle-clean and intensely private, perhaps to an extreme.
His reputation as industrious eventually caught the attention of the Securities Investor Protection Corp., a quasi-public group that oversees a fund to compensate customers of failed brokerage firms like the one run by Madoff. SIPC ended up hiring Picard to hunt for money in 10 of their cases, more than any other lawyer. It was SIPC that hired Picard as Madoff trustee in December 2008, citing recoveries in his previous work.