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Debunking 'the Amish Bernie Madoff' theme

You probably won't find many themes of forgiveness in your average ponzi scheme story. But when you're writing about “the Amish Bernie Madoff,” it's likely too difficult to ignore them.

The New York Times' Diana B. Henriques does a nice job depicting the comparisons between Bernie Madoff and Monroe L. Beachy, who was a respected financial figure in the Amish community before more than a dozen churches, church building funds, fellowships and ministries lost money in his downfall last fall.

But the most intriguing aspect of Monroe Beachy’s story is how different it seems from Bernie Madoff’s — and from almost every other story with a “Ponzi scheme” headline over the years.

While victims of Mr. Madoff’s fraud, like most Ponzi victims, condemned their accused betrayer in court as a monster, many of Mr. Beachy’s investors have said in court that it is more important to forgive him than to recover their money.

While the Madoff case and others like it have inevitably created conflict between longtime investors fighting to keep their fictional profits and more recent investors trying to recover lost principal, some Beachy investors urged that their own share of his estate should be given to those in greater need.

And while Mr. Madoff’s wife and sons instantly became social pariahs in Manhattan, Mr. Beachy’s wife and children remain at his farmstead here, living peacefully with their neighbors.

Most notably, Henriques shows how this case is different than what reporters may have assumed. By pushing these themes to the top of her lengthy piece, the reporter creates an intriguing case for what sets this story apart from another financial story. With any story surrounding religious themes, there will likely be implications for how it's handled legally, which she illustrates well.

The committee’s vigorous campaign to have the Beachy case dismissed, based on the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, won wide support. More than 2,300 creditors filed form letters with the court endorsing the plan.

THERE may have been some practical reasons for that. The public’s fascination with the charm of the Amish is the bedrock of the tourist economy here, and the Sugarcreek scandal was an ugly scar on that landscape. A solution emphasizing fundamental Amish values might well neutralize any damage that the Beachy case inflicted on the Amish image.

It seems a little odd to suggest that 2,000-some creditors would endorse a plan intended to be a mere public relations campaign. I wonder if some observer could have offered any other suggestions as to other reasons for why they would want the case dismissed. In any case, a federal judge ruled that leaving the case to a religious body would be unconstitutional.

No part of this story contrasts as sharply with the real Bernie Madoff case as what happened next.

In the Madoff bankruptcy, virtually every adverse ruling has been appealed by the losing side, as have disputed decisions in countless other high-profile bankruptcy cases. But when the Amish leaders lost their passionate plea, rooted in their deeply held religious beliefs, they simply sent the judge a letter.

“We are agreed among ourselves to accept your ruling as the will of Almighty God in this matter,” they wrote, after thanking him for considering their point of view so carefully. “If there is anything which we can do as members of the Amish-Mennonite community to facilitate the bankruptcy process and help bring it to a speedy conclusion please do not hesitate to contact any member” of the committee.

You might imagine the confused look on a financial reporter's face when reading a letter like this, but she captures the underlying themes quite nicely and let them shape the story. A reporter won't find a story like this the day after an arrest, so it's interesting to see it unfold after a few months.

But as the church fathers see it, something of lasting importance was tried in Sugarcreek.

“A hundred years from now, what will be the difference about how much money we had here?” asked Emery E. Miller, a village resident and a proponent of the alternative plan, at the first creditors meeting. “But a hundred years from now, there will be a difference in how we responded to this from our moral being, from a moral level — the choices we made to forgive or not to forgive.”

The reporter recognizes the possible comparisons between the Madoff case and this one, noting how he attracted clients who shared his faith and was accused of defrauding his own relatives. But she also sees the differences, looking at how the response of the community looked quite different than before. The entire piece is grounded in solid reporting about the case itself, not just about Amish beliefs and forgiveness. The combination creates a powerful piece.

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