Commentary

Larry King goes to bat for friend and New York Mets owner, Fred Wilpon

Updated: February 14, 2011, 10:10 AM ET
By William Weinbaum | ESPN

Kevin Bacon, John Malkovich, Kyra Sedgwick and Steven Spielberg.

All were Hollywood "A-list" names and all were investors with Bernard Madoff in what proved to be the largest Ponzi scheme in history.

[+] EnlargeLarry King
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesLarry King's wife, Shawn Southwick, son, Chance King and King with manager Bruce Bruce Bochy of the San Francisco Giants last summer.

Broadcasting legend Larry King is also on that list, and although King said he's recouped the $2.3 million he put into Madoff accounts, he has a deep-rooted interest regarding the scam's recent fallout engulfing New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon.

King said the first time he ever heard the name "Bernie Madoff" was when he and his wife were at Shea Stadium with Wilpon, King's friend since their days together at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. In an interview on Thursday at his Beverly Hills, Calif., home with T.J. Quinn of "Outside the Lines," King said his wife asked Wilpon for a recommendation of an investment company and Wilpon spoke of "this guy Madoff, who's very good, [but] he doesn't take everybody."

According to King, Wilpon recommended to Madoff -- whose family and Wilpon's family were longtime friends -- that he take on King and his brother as clients. Madoff accepted King as an investor but turned down King's brother.

Wilpon also recommended fellow Lafayette High alumnus Sandy Koufax, and the Hall of Fame Dodgers pitcher invested with Madoff, too. Through a spokesman, Koufax declined an interview request.

King said that during several years of investing with him he "never heard a bad word about Bernie Madoff." He said that beyond reliable returns from investments it was reassuring that Madoff's staff always acted immediately in wiring funds upon request.

"In fact, my wife said to me one day," King recounted, "'Why don't we put everything with him?'"

When the news of Madoff's colossal fraud broke, Wilpon was "devastated," said King, adding that Wilpon told him recently he had lost "$450 million with Madoff on the day he was arrested."

In a federal lawsuit filed in December and unsealed last week, Irving Picard, a court-appointed trustee to recover money for Madoff's victims, is seeking $1 billion from Wilpon; his brother-in-law and business partner, Saul Katz; and their company, Sterling Equities. The lawsuit cites numerous specific examples, alleging Wilpon and his associates ignored warning signs of the Madoff rip-off instead of acting on them.

"I don't buy that 'known or should have known,'" King said. "A lot of people could tell you things and sometimes, if you've had a relationship with him, you're not going to believe them."

King said he has never met Madoff, but that an opportunity would hold great allure, even though King recently ended his long tenure hosting a CNN talk show. "If I could interview one person on the planet, it'd be Bernie Madoff and the obvious [question] would be 'Why? Why did you do this to people?'" King said.

[+] EnlargeFred Wilpon and Sandy Koufax
(AP Photo/Richard DrewNew York Mets owner Fred Wilpon, left, and Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax played high school baseball together in Brooklyn, N.Y., and were investors in Bernard Madoff's ponzi scheme that collapsed in December 2008.

By contrast, there is no uncertainty, King said, about his friend Wilpon's integrity. "I think Freddy's getting an enormous bad rap, because Freddy would never, ever do a dishonest thing. Or screw a friend," King said. "He'd be the last person in the world."

As for whether Koufax shares his opinion, King said, "I haven't spoken to him about it, but I don't think there's a question. Sandy has no anger toward Fred. None, zip, zero."

Negotiations for a possible settlement of the trustee's suit against Wilpon, Katz and company broke down last week, and both sides released vitriolic statements. On Thursday, the judge appointed former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo as mediator.

"If this ever goes to trial and [Wilpon] needs a witness, I'm there," King said. "I think he's going to fight it. Freddy will not go down without swinging, and I don't think he'll go down."

Several experts interviewed by "Outside the Lines" said the weight of the lawsuit, the prospect of tens of millions of dollars in legal fees and the loss of perhaps $500 million the Mets' owners say they suffered from the collapse of their Madoff investments call into question whether Wilpon can retain control of the club. Last month, Wilpon and his son, Jeff, the team's chief operating officer, announced that a 25 percent stake in the team is for sale.

That sale, King said, effectively challenges the Madoff case trustee's assertion that Wilpon and company profited by $300 million from their Madoff investments. "If he's done so well, if there's been some sort of shenanigans committed, why does he need 25 percent of the team sold?" King said. "So we can bet this, there ain't no money in Switzerland."

The Wilpons have said they are not selling their share in the lucrative regional cable television network Sports Net New York, but indications since are they would entertain offers for SNY, too.

The Mets say the Madoff scandal is not affecting the way they put together their roster. The team's payroll is approximately $145 million, and its annual debt and interest obligations are an estimated $77 million.

King lamented the turmoil surrounding his friend's stewardship of the Mets and the doubts raised over Fred Wilpon's long-held dream that the team will be a legacy for his family.

"The tragedy would be if he ever lost the team," King said. "I think it would be the tragedy of a lifetime, and I pray it never happens."

William Weinbaum is a producer in ESPN's Enterprise Unit.

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