Mets owner Fred Wilpon insisted today that he knew "not one iota" about Bernie Madoff's multi-billion-dollar investment fraud, and that his family would be vindicated of any complicity in the multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
"We didn't do anything wrong," Wilpon said at the baseball team's Port Lucie, Florida spring training camp. "If anything we trusted a friend for a very long time, and as I told you a few months ago, that betrayal was very difficult for me."
"This was a man who we were friends with for 35 years and investors for 25 years."
A recent court filing by the trustee representing Bernie Madoff's victims, and a just-published interview with the Ponzi schemer himself, have renewed public scrutiny of the long business and personal relationship between the Madoff and Wilpon families, and raised questions about the fiscal health of the National League franchise.
While Madoff assured a New York Times reporter that the Wilpons were blameless, bankruptcy trustee Irving Picard has asked the Mets owners for $300 million and released emails showing that there were doubts about Madoff's profits within the Wilpons investment firm.
ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross told "The Charlie Rose Show" Wednesday night that representatives of Picard's firm say Madoff seems to be protecting "certain people," including "close friends who were mostly winners in this scheme," and that "Picard is going after [the Wilpons] in a very aggressive way."
"Between $300 [million] and $1 billion is the number that they think they'll get out of him," said Ross on "The Charlie Rose Show." "Three-hundred-million would be the fictitious profits they took out and then under the law if they can show that the Wilpons knew it was a fraud they're not supposed to get back the capital they put in initially."
CLICK HERE to watch Rose's interview with Ross.
Roslyn, Long Island Roots
The ties between the Madoffs and the Wilpons go back to Roslyn, Long Island, the New York City suburb where both families lived.
Bernie's son Mark and Fred Wilpon's son Jeff became close friends while in school. "Those kids grew up together, Jeff Wilpon and the Madoffs," said a former Madoff employee known as "Little Rick." "They were very good friends. They went out together." Jeff graduated Roslyn High School in 1980, and Mark graduated two years later.
"Through their children's friendship," alleges Picard's 370-page complaint, "Fred and [wife] Judith Wilpon became close friends with Madoff and his wife, Ruth." The Madoffs also became friendly with Saul Katz, Wilpon's brother-in-law and business partner in both the Mets and the investment firm Sterling Equities.
The Madoffs and the Wilpons served on the boards of charities together, and their families vacationed together on occasion. Bernie had Mets seasons tickets and he and Ruth traveled with the Mets in March 2000 when they played two games against the Chicago Cubs in Japan.
Picard's complaint also says that "Madoff was often invited to and attended family events of the Katz and Wilpon families," including bar mitzvahs of Wilpon employees' children.
"Madoff, in turn, often invited the Katz and Wilpon families to family celebrations," says the complaint, "such as the weddings of his sons and cocktail parties and dinners at his home."
Little Rick told ABC News he remembered Madoff firm employees playing softball against the back office employees of the Mets, and having barbecues at Shea Stadium.
Little Rick also remembered Jeff Wilpon once arranging for a girlfriend named Linda to work at the Madoff's firm. Wilpon and Linda both attended a Madoff firm Christmas party in a restaurant under the Brooklyn Bridge, said Little Rick, and when Linda tried to break off the relationship they got into a heated argument that turned ugly.
Little Rick said he and another employee known as "Big Rick" took Wilpon outside and told him, "Listen, you're done. Don't ever do that again." A spokesman for Jeff Wilpon confirmed the relationship with Linda but did not recall the conversation with Big and Little Rick.
When Jeff Wilpon got married, the Madoffs attended his wedding at a Long Island country club. Fred Wilpon attended Mark Madoff's wedding at the same venue.
Wilpon Invested With Madoff Three Days Before Ponzi Scheme Collapsed
The business relationship between Bernie Madoff and Fred Wilpon seems to have begun in earnest in the 1980s. Madoff ultimately moved his offices to a building co-owned by Wilpon.
Picard's complaint says that Madoff invested in some of Wilpon's real estate ventures and "Fred Wilpon invested in BLMIS [Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities]."
By the time the Ponzi scheme blew up in December 2008, there were about 500 accounts with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities in the names of various Wilpon and Katz family members and associates, the Mets and Sterling Equities.
At the time of Madoff's arrest, the Wilpons had half a billion dollars invested with Madoff, and Wilpon noted Thursday that he was still investing money with Madoff three days before the scam unraveled.
But Picard's complaint says that the Wilpons ignored clear warning signs. The complaint alleges that employees of Sterling Equities were told by an investment partner that Madoff's numbers were "too good to be true" but the company was "in too deep... to do anything but ignore the gathering clouds."
The complaint alleges that after Madoff's arrest in 2008, an employee for a Sterling Equities hedge fund, Sterling Stamos, sent an email in which the employee wrote, "I guess our CIO [Chief Investment Officer] always said it was a scam," the filing says. The complaint also claims Sterling Equities "was aware of and even enabled" Madoff's attempts to avoid regulatory scrutiny by insulating the firm from contact by other clients and their own employees.
On January 28, just before the details of Picard's suit became public, the Wilpons announced that they would consider selling a 25 percent stake in their baseball team "to address the air of uncertainty created by this lawsuit."
Forbes has estimated the value of the franchise at $845 million, making a quarter share worth less than $230 million. Forbes has also reported that the book value of the Mets and their new stadium Citi Field, is a net negative because of heavy debt. Wilpon and partners have borrowed against the Mets and against SportsNet New York, the regional TV network that airs Mets games, and owes money on the bonds used to finance the stadium. Picard's claim for fictitious profits against the Wilpons is $300 million.
Jeff Wilpon, now the COO of the Mets, told reporters Wednesday that he and his father were victims of an "unfair, unfounded" attack because of their connection to Madoff, and predicted vindication. "We're going to fight [the case] and be victorious in the end," Wilpon said.