Madoff victims split on suit against Wilpons

Bernard Madoff leaves federal court in Manhattan. (March

Bernard Madoff leaves federal court in Manhattan. (March 10, 2009) (Credit: Getty Images)

News the Wilpon family, owners of the New York Mets, may sell a minority stake in the baseball team because of a lawsuit seeking to recoup money in the Bernard Madoff investment fraud drew a range of reactions from some victims in the case Saturday.

Some victims saw the Wilpons as innocent investors, much like themselves, who should not be further victimized, this time by the special trustee Irving H. Picard, who is seeking "clawbacks" - millions of dollars in allegedly phony profits the Wilpons made from investments with the now-jailed financier.

The Mets are owned by the Wilpons' Great Neck-based Sterling Equities real estate conglomerate. Picard has filed a lawsuit, which remains under seal, against more than 100 Sterling-related entities and individuals, including trust funds and estates. Court records filed in 2009 show just two of those entities made net winnings of about $49 million.

Taking into account that Picard has sought on average between $1 million to $2 million in scores of clawback cases he's filed - not including the billion-dollar bombshells against big banks in Europe - so far, the case against Sterling defendants probably will total at least between $150 million to $250 million, a legal expert with knowledge of the Madoff investigation who declined to be named told Newsday.

The Wilpons have said they too were Madoff's victims.

Judith Welling of Manhattan didn't see it that way. "It seems to me that anyone with the kinds of advice they had, should have been aware" of irregularities in their Madoff investments. "That's what the trustee is saying," she said, adding that Picard "is doing his job trying to get money for the victims."

But Richard Friedman, formerly of Jericho who now lives in West Orange, N.J., thought Picard had targeted innocent people, including his 85-year-old widowed mother.

"I don't think that the trustee should go after anybody that innocently took out money they thought was there, whether it be Fred Wilpon or myself," Friedman said, adding he was not a net winner. "I don't know if [the Wilpons] were complicit or not. I'm just making a statement that I think it's wrong for Picard to claw back from innocent investors who had no knowledge of the fraud."

Picard and the Securities and Exchange Commission were, Friedman said, "going after grandma and great-grandma. People have suffered enough."

Picard could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Ronnie Sue Ambrosino, formerly of Bay Shore who now lives in a motor home in Surprise, Ariz., where her family is "trying to rebuild our lives," said she heads the Bernard Madoff Victims Coalition, which has 450 members.

She criticized Picard for treating small-time investors the same as big-time investors. "Innocent victims who believed the SEC when they told us that Madoff was a legitimate broker should not be required to give back money they took under that premise," Ambrosino said.

If the Wilpons knew of the fraud, she said, they should "return the money they made from it." But she acknowledged it was hard to know while the lawsuit remained under seal.

While Picard is suing hundreds of net winners like the Wilpons, each of them will in turn be able to file claims to recoup some money, the trustee's counsel David Sheehan said earlier this month.

With Anthony M. DeStefano

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