Fred Wilpon: 'We will be vindicated'

Updated: February 18, 2011, 7:03 PM ET
By Adam Rubin | ESPNNewYork.com

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Principal owner Fred Wilpon arrived at New York Mets camp Thursday morning and said his family will be "vindicated" in a $1 billion lawsuit brought against them.

Wilpon, chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon and team president Saul Katz are accused of either knowing, or it is alleged that they should have known, convicted swindler Bernard Madoff was operating a Ponzi scheme in the billions of dollars.

Trustee Irving Picard, who is trying to recover funds for fraud victims, has maintained the Mets' owners made $300 million in "fictitious profits" from the scheme and should also forfeit $700 million in alleged principal withdrawn.

"We did not know one iota, one thing about Madoff's fraud," Fred Wilpon said as his team stretched in the background on the first day of pitchers' and catchers' workouts. "We didn't do anything wrong. If anything, we trusted a friend for a very long time. And as I told you a few months ago, that betrayal is very difficult for me because this was a man who, we were friends for 35 years and investors for 25 years.

"Having said that, we will be vindicated. What you have been writing about are allegations. They are allegations made by the trustee. Allegations are not fact. We have to now come back and tell you what our facts are, based upon facts and based upon the law. And our lawyers are doing that and they will do that. And we will be vindicated. I can't give you the timetable. That depends on issues beyond our control.

"I cannot tell you how difficult and painful the attacks have been on my family -- Saul, Jeff, myself, my grandchildren. The one thing no one ever, ever in 50 years in business questioned was my integrity."

Wilpon pledged the resources would continue to support a New York-level payroll "for years to come."

Later, Wilpon was asked how he could know with certainty that he could maintain control of the Mets, given that the result of the litigation is unknown.

"I can tell you with certainty I know I'm here today," Wilpon said. "And, frankly, I don't know if I'll be dead tomorrow. I can only tell you we have the resources in other businesses. Every one of our other businesses are going very well. And this business has to be straightened out -- no question about it.

"Every other business we have I like. This business I love. I love the New York Mets. I've been around here for almost 32 years. This is part of my DNA. So we're going to do everything we can possibly to see that we bring competitive teams here."

Wilpon has indicated he plans to sell 20 to 25 percent of the team. The principal owner said he spoke Wednesday with Steve Greenberg, the man hired to find a suitor, and that the pursuit of prospective minority owners is going well.

"Steve told me yesterday that he's never run a process like this, that he's gotten more real, top-notch people to go through the process," Wilpon said. "And that means going through a process where they have to submit to Major League Baseball financials. They have to do all of those things. And they are doing it. There's a lot of people who have a sincere interest."

Why put a share of the team up for sale if the family believes it will be vindicated?

"Because we think it's the prudent business thing to do," Wilpon said.

Asked if "vindication" meant not having to pay anything to the trustee recovering funds for Madoff victims, Wilpon acknowledged that he did not know the law precisely. It's conceivable, even if the Wilpons could not reasonably have known that Madoff was a fraud, that they could be liable for $300 million in what are alleged to be "fictitious profits" -- money withdrawn over principal from certain accounts -- in order for victims who lost principal to be made more whole.

"By vindication, I mean, No. 1, that everyone will know that we had nothing to do with it," Wilpon said. "We didn't know anything about it. And we were duped. Beyond that, I don't know how the law comes out. The law seems to be very much in our favor.

"We never benefited any other way than any other victim. We got the same kind of returns. We never got any special returns. It was over a long period of time. We lost over a half-billion dollars the day [Madoff] went under -- cash money. We put in money -- I personally put in money -- within three weeks of him going under.

"I know you look at me like I have a third head, but I'm not stupid. I wouldn't risk my family's money if I thought there was anything wrong."

Asked if victims who lost principal ought to get back principal at the expense of even unwitting net gainers in the fraud, Wilpon said: "I deeply feel for them, many of whom were my friends or relatives. I think whatever the law provides and allows to happen, I would hope that happens."

Wilpon said Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been in his corner.

"I think Bud, as the commissioner, has been extremely supportive," Wilpon said. "As my friend, he has been supportive like my brother. He is fully up to date. I talk to him all the time."

Why did Wilpon make such a public appearance on a day the topic might have otherwise turned to the first official workout for Mets pitchers and catchers?

"Have you read the papers in the last few weeks?" Wilpon asked. "I want to put an end to it. And that's why I brought it up. I'm not hiding from anything. We provided 700,000 pieces of paper -- 700,000 pieces of paper in the year and a little bit -- to the trustee. We're not hiding anything. We have nothing to hide."

Adam Rubin has covered the Mets since 2003. He's a graduate of Mepham High School on Long Island and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined ESPNNewYork after spending 10 years at the New York Daily News.
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