Judge tosses chunk of Mets-Madoff suit

Mets owner Fred Wilpon speaks at a news Mets owner Fred Wilpon speaks at a news conference. Photo Credit: Errol Anderson, 2010

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A federal judge Tuesday tossed out a large chunk of the $1 billion lawsuit brought against the owners of the Mets by the trustee in the Bernard Madoff case.

U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff said bankruptcy trustee Irving Picard could pursue $83.3 million in earnings that Fred Wilpon, Saul Katz and their associates at Sterling Equities received from Madoff. Picard has been seeking $295 million in profits.

The judge also said the defendants may have to cough up some of their original investment with Madoff, who was convicted of running a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme. But the judge tightened the standard of proof that Picard must meet to win that claim.

Court records show that in the two years Picard claims the defendants made the $83 million in profits, they invested $301 million in principal. The judge left open the possibility Picard could go after both pots of money, or more than $385 million.

Rakoff ordered both sides to appear before him Wednesday afternoon. A trial date is set for March.

There was some uncertainty after Rakoff's decision was released late Tuesday afternoon on its full implications for the Mets owners' potential exposure. Some language suggested Picard could still attempt to collect the full $700 million he contends was their original investment, while other portions of the ruling just zeroed in on a two-year period of account activity.

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"The trustee and his counsel are aware of the district court opinion and order, and are in the process of reviewing the decision," said Picard's spokeswoman, Amanda Remus. "Prior to a thorough evaluation of the ruling, we have no comment."

In a statement, Sterling Partners said it was "pleased that the court today dismissed nine of the 11 counts in the trustee's complaint, and that the lone remaining count in which the trustee seeks to recover payments from the Sterling Partners is limited to a two-year period."

Rakoff's 18-page ruling didn't decide the merits of the lawsuit. He used federal bankruptcy and securities laws to toss out nine counts, finding some of Picard's allegations "less than overwhelming," but said the trustee had made legally sufficient allegations for them to survive.

He did not rule on a motion for a summary judgment to dismiss the entire case.

The court allowed Picard to pursue one count of actual fraud against the Wilpons for the $83.3 million in profits received in the two years before Madoff went bust in December 2008 "simply by showing the . . . [Wilpons] failed to provide value" for the earnings.

Picard can also try to go after the original principal the Wilpons invested in that same period only if he proves "absence of good faith" based in part upon their alleged "willful blindness" to Madoff's fraud.

Picard sued the Wilpons, Katz, their Sterling Equities firm and various partners in December for $1 billion, alleging that they turned a blind eye to "red flags" that Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme.

The Wilpons and the Sterling partners denied they ignored warnings about Madoff's fraud and said they were victims, losing $500 million they thought they had in their accounts.

Picard and the Wilpons have been in mediation before former Gov. Mario Cuomo, with little movement reported.

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