Bernard Madoff could not have pulled off history's biggest Ponzi scheme without assistance from five greedy employees who helped him lie to thousands of investors and federal regulators, a prosecutor told jurors at the opening of a five-month criminal fraud trial, the first to result from a lengthy probe of the financier's fallen empire.

Bernie Madoff
Mario Tama, Getty Images

"Nobody is going to dispute that Bernard Madoff told a ton of lies -- of course, he did," Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Schwartz told jurors in an opening statement at the Manhattan trial of five ex-Madoff employees. "But the evidence will show that these defendants knew exactly what they were doing. ... They did it because Bernard Madoff encouraged it and they were getting rich in the process."

Lawyers for the defendants were expected to insist in their opening statements Thursday that their clients were victims of a boss who fooled them just as he did investors and regulators.

Annette Bongiorno, Madoff's longtime secretary; Daniel Bonventre, his director of operations for investments; JoAnn Crupi, an account manager; and computer programmers Jerome O'Hara and George Perez -- all have pleaded not guilty. They have claimed they were led astray by Madoff and kept in the dark about his epic fraud.

The prosecutor alleged the defendants went to absurd lengths to cover their tracks. He told an anecdote about how in the middle of an audit, O'Hara, Perez and Krupi needed to quickly cook up a fake document. After pulling the document hot off the printer, they put it in a refrigerator to cool it off and tossed it around to make it look older before handing it over to auditors waiting in a conference room at Madoff's firm, he said.

"These are the people who helped him do it," Schwartz said, pointing at each defendant in federal court. "Bernie Madoff needed help to fool so many people for so long."

The trial follows the 2008 collapse of Madoff's private investment business, which cost clients nearly $20 billion. A court-appointed trustee has recovered much of the money by forcing those customers who received big payouts from Madoff to return the funds. When the fraud was revealed, Madoff admitted that the nearly $68 billion he claimed existed in accounts was actually only several hundred million dollars.

Schwartz described the defendants as "necessary players" in Madoff's fraud, saying Bongiorno, hired in 1968, and Crupi, hired in 1983, used old stock tables to fabricate account statements and other fake records -- "millions of pages of lies" -- that kept the Securities and Exchange Commission at bay. They also rewarded themselves with tens of millions of dollars in salary and bonuses from a "slush fund" of stolen money, including $2.5 million for a beach house for Crupi as the scheme was collapsing, he said.

O'Hara and Perez, hired in the early `90s, developed a software program that automated the fraud, generating "information out of thin air," the prosecutor said. In 2006, when the men told Madoff they were tired of lying, he agreed to keep them quiet by paying them off, partly in diamonds so there was no paper trail, he said.

Bonventre, hired in 1968, was in charge of keeping three separate of books on the business, "each one designed to fool whoever was looking at it," Schwartz said.

The Ponzi scheme nearly ran out of money at least twice before finally collapsing during the 2008 financial crisis. At the time, investors were seeking to divest $1.4 billion when the firm only had $300 million left, the prosecutor said.

Madoff told DiPascali he wanted to distribute the $300 million to longtime clients and loyal employees before turning himself in, the prosecutor said. When Bongiorno learned she would get $58 million, she complained she would have to pay taxes on it, he said.

The prosecutor made no mention of the sexual and romantic relationships the government said in pretrial papers occurred regularly among Madoff's employees and some customers. Madoff himself, it said, was involved in a love triangle with one of the defendants.

During jury selection, prospective jurors were told that they might hear references to big names like Steven Spielberg, Sandy Koufax, Kevin Bacon and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Madoff, 75, is serving his sentence at a North Carolina federal lockup.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)