PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Lashing back at accusations involving his family's role in the Bernard Madoff scandal, Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon said Wednesday that the family will keep majority ownership of the team and predicted victory in the lawsuit filed by the trustee for Madoff's victims that seeks as much as $1 billion.
"We're not giving up control" of the franchise, Wilpon said in his first public remarks since the announcement last month that 25 percent of the team was for sale. He said the team's co-owners, his father, Fred Wilpon, and his uncle Saul Katz, are "going to be victorious in the end."
Picard said in the lawsuit that Fred Wilpon and Katz ignored multiple warning signs and "knew or should have known" that their high-yield returns on investments with Madoff were "too good to be true." Wilpon and Katz have portrayed themselves as victims of Madoff, saying they never knew or suspected his Ponzi scheme.
Wilpon held court with reporters in a corner of the Mets' spring training clubhouse at Digital Domain Park, handling mostly Madoff questions. He insisted any potential sale would involve only a limited partner.
"We're not selling controlling interest in the team," Wilpon said. "It's not on the table."
Asked how his family was holding up in the controversy that has engulfed the Mets and their business enterprise, Sterling Equities, Wilpon said: "I'm doing fine. This is all obviously a little bit of a distraction and I feel really bad for our family and bad for my dad and my uncle because this is just unfounded criticism on them. They've had years and years that they've been good citizens, good businessmen, and to attack them the way they've been attacked is very unfair, unfounded and that's all I really want to say on that."
He added, "We're going to fight it and we're going to be victorious in the end."
Wilpon's remarks were a prelude to Fred Wilpon's arrival Thursday, which also is the first official workout for the Mets' pitchers and catchers. The principal owner plans to speak to reporters.
Jeff Wilpon offered no opinion on Madoff's remarks to The New York Times, in which the jailed broker said that Fred Wilpon and Katz "knew nothing" about the Ponzi scheme.
Asked if he felt vindicated by Madoff's statements, Wilpon replied, "I'm not going to discuss that."
Wilpon's impromptu news conference marked the first time that anyone from the Mets' ownership group had spoken publicly since Picard's complaint against them was unsealed on Feb. 4. On that day, a statement was released on behalf of Fred Wilpon and Katz.
Jeff Wilpon said talks have been progressing on selling a part of the team, but he did not elaborate on specific investors. Donald Trump has expressed interest in the Mets - but only for the whole team, not a piece - and Wilpon said there are plenty of other candidates.
"We're exploring our options," he said.
Asked to characterize interest in the team, Wilpon said, "A lot of interest. And good interest from real people that you hadn't read about in the papers. Most of what you've read about in the papers is not real."
Wilpon said his visit had been planned two months earlier and it was nothing different from what he usually does at the start of spring training. In making the rounds through the clubhouse, Wilpon stopped by the manager's office, where he assured Terry Collins the Madoff lawsuit would not be a problem for the day-to-day operations.
"I said 'don't worry about it,' " Wilpon said. "This is an ownership issue. This is a Sterling Equities issue. It has nothing to do with what goes on here. As you know, our payroll is going to be $145 to $150 million. That's right up there, and we're going to be committed to make sure all the resources are here to continue to run this team the way it's been run."