* PricewaterhouseCoopers started work on Monday: trustee
* Peregrine customers press for early return of money
(Adds customer comment, Sentinel trustee comment, background)
CHICAGO, July 25 (Reuters) - Peregrine Financial Group's bankruptcy trustee has hired a team of forensic accountants to help figure out what money remains at the failed futures brokerage after its chief executive's arrest and confession to years of looting his customers' accounts.
Ira Bodenstein, the trustee, hired PricewaterhouseCoopers over the weekend and the accountants started work on Monday, he told Reuters on Wednesday. Their task is to secure data and gather information, he said.
Peregrine filed for bankruptcy on July 10, a day after the firm's CEO, Russell Wasendorf Sr., attempted suicide and left a signed note describing how he bilked customers of more than $100 million over a nearly 20-year period, forging bank statements and intercepting mail between his bank and the firm's auditors at the National Futures Association.
"The simple fact is that Wasendorf's forgeries fooled us, and fooled us for longer than any of us would like," NFA President Daniel Roth told U.S. lawmakers earlier on Wednesday. [ID:nL2E8IOGNG]
Customers of the failed firm have had their accounts frozen for more than two weeks, and have not received any of their money back.
The hiring of PricewaterhouseCoopers suggests the trustee is seeking independent confirmation of how much money is actually at the firm and in customers' accounts, a first step before any money can be released.
It took a little over two weeks after the failure of MF Global last year for the bankruptcy trustee in that case to ask for court approval to give customers about 60 percent of their cash back. Some customers of Peregrine Financial are grumbling that the process this time is taking too long.
"PFG is moving real slow: there's no plan yet for any kind of bulk distribution," said James Koutoulas, CEO of Typhon Capital Management, which had money tied up at both MF Global and Peregrine Financial.
"The first question is to figure out where things stand," said Fred Grede, bankruptcy trustee for Sentinel Management, a failed futures brokerage whose CEO was indicted last month on federal fraud charges.
The forensic accountants will be checking on exactly what assets and liabilities are actually at the firm, he said. Once that is done, the trustee may make "some sort of initial distribution," Grede said.
The next step, he said, will be to trace where any missing money went. "I would expect that to be a lengthy, painstaking process."
Peregrine's faked financial statements included printouts of daily online reports of bank balances, cashier's checks, bank deposit tickets and reports on customer fund balances to regulators, NFA's Roth said.
Bankruptcy trustees are typically reluctant to release any money before they know what is actually there, for fear of giving some creditors more than their fair share.
PricewaterhouseCoopers was previously retained to review certain Peregrine financial accounts more than a decade ago as a condition of a settlement Peregrine struck with the CFTC. The CFTC fined the brokerage and ordered it to get a second independent opinion of its books. [ID:nL2E8IPA9Y]
(Reporting by Ann Saphir; Editing by Bernard Orr and Tim Dobbyn)
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