NEW YORK (AP/CBS 2) –The owners of the New York Mets turned a blind eye to Bernard Madoff’s massive fraud, reaping $300 million in false profits and using a large chunk to run the team, according to a lawsuit unsealed Friday.
The suit also claims the owners were so dependent on the disgraced financier’s too-good-to-be-true returns that it “faced a severe and immediate liquidity crisis” when Madoff’s crimes were revealed in 2009.
The searing allegations were made by Irving Picard, the trustee appointed to recover funds for investors burned by Madoff’s scheme. The suit filed by Picard in federal bankruptcy court in Manhattan names Sterling Equities, along with its partners and family members, including Met baseball team owner Fred Wilpon, president Saul Katz and chief operating Jeff Wilpon, the owner’s son.
“Given Sterling’s dependency on Madoff, it comes as no surprise that the partners willfully turned a blind eye to every red flag of fraud before them,” Fernando A. Bohorquez, Jr., a lawyer representing Picard, said Friday.
The suit had been filed under seal in December while the parties tried to work out a settlement. But lawyers told a judge this week that talks had collapsed and consented to having the complaint made public.
Its opening salvo: “There are thousands of victims of Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme. But Saul Katz is not one of them. Neither is Fred Wilpon.”
The complaint alleges the partnership “received approximately $300 million in fictitious profits” from hundreds of accounts opened with Madoff’s firm. Of that, it says, $90 million of “other people’s money” were withdrawn to cover day-to-day operations of the Mets.
Wilpon and Katz fired back Friday with a statement calling the suit “an outrageous strong-arm effort to force a settlement by threatening to ruin our reputations and businesses we built for over 50 years.”
The pair called the accusations “abusive, unfair and untrue,” insisting they were victims of the fraud.
“We should not be made victims twice over — the first time by Madoff and again by the trustee,” they wrote.
The suit has cast a cloud over the Mets ownership, which has said it’s exploring a partial sale of the team. But Wilpon and Katz denied Friday that the operation was ever dependent on Madoff.
“That is complete nonsense,” they said. “We have good, sound businesses that were successful years before we invested with Madoff, including both real estate and the New York Mets.”
Madoff, 72, is serving a 150-year sentence in a federal prison in North Carolina after admitting that he ran his scheme for at least two decades, using his investment advisory service to cheat individuals, charities, celebrities and institutional investors.
Losses are estimated at around $20 billion, making it the biggest investment fraud in U.S. history.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
Statement from Fred Wilpon, Co-Founder and Chairman, and Saul B. Katz, Co-Founder and President of Sterling Equities, on behalf of the Sterling Equities partners and their families
GREAT NECK, N.Y., February 4, 2011 — Following days of leaks and press speculation, the Court – with the agreement of the Sterling partners – has released the complaint that was previously filed under seal.
The Trustee’s lawsuit is an outrageous “strong arm” effort to try to force to sell structured settlement by threatening to ruin our reputations and businesses which we have built for over 50 years. This is a flagrant abuse of the Trustee’s authority and we will not succumb to his pressure. The conclusions in the complaint are not supported by the facts. While they may make for good headlines, they are abusive, unfair and untrue. We categorically reject them. We should not be made victims twice over – the first time by Madoff, and again by the Trustee’s actions.
The plain truth is that not one of the Sterling partners ever knew or suspected that Madoff ran a Ponzi scheme. Because the Trustee has no evidence to support his claims even after a year-and-a-half review of over 700,000 pages of documents and many, many hours of depositions, he has created a claim that we “knew or should have known” that Madoff was a fraud. Why should we “have known” when the SEC and other government agencies that had oversight responsibilities did not know? In fact, the SEC reported that Madoff was above board and legitimate, even after it investigated him many times. Madoff was not a hedge fund, but an SEC regulated broker dealer and like millions of other Americans, we trusted the brokerage statements we received. The Trustee is suing not only for what he defines as “fictitious profits” but for monies that we deposited with Madoff over almost 25 years. That is outrageous, unfounded and inconsistent with the law. Let us be clear, the Trustee is attempting to seize money originally invested with Madoff, which was earned from the Sterling businesses.
The Trustee also alleges that we were blinded to Madoff’s crimes because our businesses “depended” on the returns. That is complete nonsense. We have good, sound businesses that were successful years before we invested with Madoff, including both real estate and the New York Mets. Those businesses never depended on returns from Madoff.
Our previous statements
All of the public statements we have issued to date have been accurate and true. We said when the fraud was first disclosed that the losses we suffered in the Madoff scheme would have no impact on the operations of the New York Mets and that was true. At the time, we could not have anticipated that a trustee would file a lawsuit seeking to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in addition to the substantial amounts that Madoff had stolen from us.
As we announced last Friday, we are now seeking one or more strategic partners in the New York Mets specifically because of the uncertainty created by the lawsuit filed by the Trustee in the Madoff bankruptcy.
We thought that Madoff was a friend for 25 years. That is why his betrayal was so painful. Each of the Sterling partners and their families invested with Madoff in good faith right up to the day his crime was exposed. We were as shocked as the rest of the world when the money in our accounts vanished along with the billions he swindled from thousands of other innocent people.
In summary, we are proud of what we have built and achieved as a family. We have worked very hard for our entire lives, always with character and integrity. We will not sit still while the Trustee or anyone else makes these outrageous and irresponsible allegations. People who know us know the truth about who we are and what our life’s work represents.
Again, we have done nothing wrong. We played by the rules. We abided by the court order not to discuss the lawsuit. Others did not. We are confident we will win in court.
Statement By Robert B. Fiske, Jr., Karen E. Wagner, And David L. Caplan Of Davis Polk & Wardwell Llp On Behalf Of The Sterling Defendants
NEW YORK, N.Y., February 4, 2011 — Following days of leaks and press speculation, the Court, with the agreement of the Sterling partners, has released the complaint against our clients that was previously filed under seal.
While the heated rhetoric in the complaint may generate headlines, it is not supported by the facts, the law, or the extensive discovery record developed by the Trustee before he formulated the complaint – numerous depositions and over 700,000 pages of documents provided by the Sterling partners over the last year and a half.
The bottom line is that the Sterling partners were innocent victims of the Madoff fraud, and the Trustee’s massive discovery effort did not uncover one shred of evidence to the contrary. Nevertheless, the complaint further victimizes the Sterling partners by arguing that they “knew or should have known” that Madoff was a fraud and therefore are somehow liable for amounts beyond their very substantial losses. This suggestion is false.
With regard to the complaint:
The complaint appears to contend that, because the Sterling partners are wealthy and successful individuals, they should have known Madoff was not trading any securities and was engaging in a Ponzi scheme. Yet the Sterling partners had over $500 million in their Madoff accounts at the time of his failure – some put in only days before – and all of it lost. Anyone who knows Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz knows that they would not have dealt for one minute with someone they thought might be engaged in fraud. Moreover, as a matter of elementary common sense, no rational person who thinks his broker might be a fraud would leave such a substantial sum with him.
Contrary to what the Trustee asserts, the returns on the Sterling-related brokerage accounts were not “staggering,” “easy money,” or “too good to be true.” The $300 million of profit alleged in the complaint, even if accurate, would not be “staggering” or extraordinary when viewed in the context of the amount of principal invested over the past 25 years.
In addition, the $300 million claimed in the complaint reflects only those accounts that the Trustee has selected for inclusion because they were profitable. It ignores numerous accounts that, in the Trustee’s parlance, were “net losers,” which, according to our clients’ analysis, total approximately $160 million.
Madoff investments did not “fuel” our clients’ operating businesses. The Sterling partners’ wealth was generated by their hard-earned success in real estate, sports, media, and other businesses – not by investments with Madoff.
The complaint also ignores the fact that Madoff was viewed as a person of considerable stature in the financial community. He had been the chairman of the board of directors of NASDAQ, a member of the NASD board of governors, and a member of the board of what now is SIFMA – an eminent figure in the investment world. He also partnered with prominent financial institutions to create Primex, an electronic auction trading system that was approved by the SEC and adopted by NASDAQ. Moreover, the Sterling partners knew, and relied upon, the fact that the SEC – the federal agency charged with uncovering and prosecuting fraud – had investigated Madoff and taken no action against him.
For 25 years the Sterling partners saw nothing to indicate that Madoff was not trading securities as he was reporting he did. Moreover, the partners took legitimate comfort from the fact that numerous highly regarded and sophisticated lending institutions readily accepted their Madoff investments as security for multi-million dollar loans.
The Sterling partners’ dealings with their broker were entirely lawful. While the Trustee calls payments made to them “fictitious profit,” he ignores a large and consistent body of state and federal law that permits a customer of a registered broker dealer to rely on statements he receives from the broker – and which imposes no investigatory obligation upon a customer who in any event would have no way of confirming what the broker was doing. Payments made in connection with those statements are lawful. Our entire system of customer dealings with brokers is structured so that customers receive, and rely on, their account statements and confirmations. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply incorrect.
The complaint appears to argue that the partners should have known that Madoff was a fraud for three principal reasons:
First, they were friendly with Madoff and could have asked him if he was engaging in a fraud. Neither the law nor common sense supports such a proposition.
Second, in 2002 the partners diversified their securities investments by establishing a new company to be run by Peter Stamos. The Sterling partners were investors and had no role with respect to investment decisions. Nonetheless, we understand the complaint to contend that, because two of the partners were involved in the selection of Mr. Stamos and the establishment of the fund, they became expert in market trading, hedge fund due diligence, and broker dealer regulation, and, therefore, if people said things to them like “I don’t know how Madoff does it,” the Sterling partners should have realized that Madoff was doing no trading and running a Ponzi scheme. Thus, the theory of the complaint appears to be that comments of this type should have led the Sterling partners to reach a conclusion that the SEC, with the benefit of substantially more information, trained fraud investigators, and subpoena power, did not reach.
Similarly, we understand the complaint to claim that, because Merrill Lynch, when it acquired part of the Stamos company in 2007, would not permit investment with managers employing “black box” or other similar strategies, the Sterling partners should have concluded that Madoff’s registered brokerage operation was fraudulent. In fact, many people invest with managers using such proprietary strategies, which are entirely lawful. That Merrill Lynch decided not to means nothing.
Third, the complaint suggests that, because Sterling Stamos had invested in the Bayou hedge fund, the Sterling partners should have realized that Madoff was a fraud. Again, the proposition is wide of the mark – the partners had no involvement with the Bayou investment, and Bayou was a completely different situation. Bayou was a hedge fund. Madoff’s brokerage entity, on the other hand, was a registered broker dealer, regulated by the SEC, that issued statements reflecting trading for customers.
The complaint is further undercut by another fundamental fact not mentioned by the Trustee: if the Sterling partners had thought Madoff might be engaged in a fraud – a conclusion they never reached – their recourse would have been to go to the SEC, the watchdog that licensed Madoff and that is there to protect customers. This would have been a futile exercise. As we know now, the fraud would not have been uncovered.
The complaint, in our opinion, is an unwarranted reach by the Trustee. The Sterling partners lost more than money in the Madoff fraud – they lost faith in someone they thought was a trusted friend. But their faith in the legal system remains strong, and we are confident they will prevail.