Trial For New York Mets Owners To Start Monday

The civil trial for the owners of the New York Mets is set to begin Monday. The outcome could hinge on the question of "willful blindness" — whether Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz should have known that the Ponzi scheme run by their friend Bernie Madoff was too good to be true.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Spring training is underway at the New York Mets camp in Florida, but the baseball team and its fans are also focused on a different venue: U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

On Monday, a civil trial is scheduled to begin there for the team's owners. A federal judge has already ordered them to return $83 million in profits from Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, but a trustee representing Madoff's victims wants even more.

NPR's Joel Rose has this preview of the trial.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: If the Mets owners have their way, the jury will hear from one of the greatest baseball players ever to come out of Brooklyn.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sandy into his windup. Here's the pitch. Swung on and missed. The perfect game.

ROSE: Sandy Koufax threw that perfect game in Los Angeles as a member of the Dodgers in 1965, but before that, Koufax was a childhood friend of one of the current Mets owners, Fred Wilpon, and his testimony could be crucial to the Mets owners' defense.

Wilpon and his co-owner, Saul Katz, insist they did not know that their other longtime friend, Bernie Madoff, was running a multibillion dollar Ponzi scheme, even as their investments with Madoff were bringing in millions. But lawyers for Irving Picard, the trustee who's trying to recover money for Madoff's victims, will likely try to prove that the Mets owners were willfully blind to what was really happening.

MICHAEL MCCANN: And that's going to be the core argument.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Michael McCann directs the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School. McCann says the trustee will try to convince the jury that the Mets owners were more sophisticated than your average investor.

MCCANN: Even though they didn't know that Madoff was necessarily doing something wrong, there were very strong warning signs that they opted not to pursue because they were doing so well.

ROSE: But the Mets owners will try to argue that they were duped just like everyone else, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, and this is where Sandy Koufax comes in. The Mets owners encouraged Koufax and other friends to invest their money with Madoff, too.

Michael Kline is a lawyer at Fox Rothschild who's blogging about the case.

MICHAEL KLINE: They're trying to show that they didn't know. They would never have placed a person of this relationship and endanger his retirement if they had known it was a scam.

ROSE: The Mets owners want Koufax to testify, while the trustee representing Madoff's victims is trying to keep him off the witness stand. That trustee was originally trying to recover a billion dollars from the Mets owners, but a federal judge reduced that amount considerably to up to roughly $380 million. Now, it's up to a jury to decide and no matter what happens in court, the Mets owners may wind up looking like losers.

Wayne McDonald teaches sports business at New York University.

WAYNE MCDONALD: It's going to be a public relations catastrophe, no matter what, for the Mets because they let their franchise get to this point.

ROSE: The dirty laundry of the team and the Wilpon and Katz families could be aired in court for weeks, which leads some to ask why they haven't settled, including Michael McCann at Vermont Law School.

MCCANN: There definitely is an incentive for the Mets owners to just get rid of this. Baseball season's about to start, there's no need to have this enter into the season and embarrass the team, but I suspect it's coming down to a dollar figure, on what is an appropriate settlement number.

ROSE: The Mets owners say they were Madoff's victims, too. The team is already deeply in debt, having taken out loans last year just to meet payroll. Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz are going to need every dollar they can get if they want to hold onto the team.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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