Scoop of a Lifetime

With wisdom acquired at MSU Denver as a guiding light, Michael Ocrant helped expose Bernie Madoff's deeply layered Ponzi scheme.

By Pat Rooney

Publish Date: June 23, 2015

Years before he broke the biggest business and finance story of the new century, exposing the deeply layered Ponzi scheme perpetrated by stockbroker Bernie Madoff, Michael Ocrant (B.A. journalism ’86) took part in a nationally televised debate about ethics.

As the managing editor of Securities Week and other industry publications, Ocrant was already one of the most experienced and diligent business and finance reporters on Wall Street when he squared off with the president of the Securities Industry Association. The issue at hand was a new decree that required all brokers to complete an ethics course, a move Ocrant’s debate opponent believed would eliminate the bulk of the seedy practices some brokers were committing against their clients.

Ocrant disagreed. And he based his rebuttal on wisdom once offered by his mentor — the late, revered MSU Denver journalism professor Greg Pearson.

“My first response was that you can’t teach ethics,” said Ocrant. “You either have it or you don’t. And that was a Greg Pearson lesson. It has to be within you. You can take any course you want in ethics. If you don’t have basic ethical principles, a class is just like taking a test. (Pearson) always had things like that he tried to pass on.”

Clearly, Ocrant took those lessons to heart.

A Denver native who enrolled at MSU Denver mostly due to its convenient location and affordable costs, Ocrant emerged as one of the leading investigative reporters on Wall Street even before he broke the Madoff scandal.

Acting on a tip from a colleague, Ocrant slowly unraveled the depths of Madoff’s devious doings, adding another illustrious byline to a resume that already included reports on the Hillary Clinton cattle fund controversy in the mid- 1990s. That work earned Ocrant the National Press Club Award in 1995 for breaking news.

These days Ocrant, who lives in Manhattan with his wife and teenage son, has weaned himself from investigative journalism and now is the conference director in the Finance Division of the Institute for International Research, which provides trade conferences and expositions, seminars, training events and more.

The lessons gleaned from Pearson three decades ago at MSU Denver remain guiding lights for Ocrant, particularly when he looks back at the aftermath of the Madoff fraud.

“People think these were wealthy people,” he said of the victims, “They were not super- wealthy — and they put all their money in this,” Ocrant said. “I talked to one man who told us his parents invested everything and lost everything. And now he’s supporting them.

“It’s very, very sad. You wish you could do more.”