New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon predicted his family "will be vindicated" from a claim they had prior knowledge of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
Speaking Thursday at the Mets spring training camp, Wilpon said he was naive to invest with Madoff, a longtime friend and neighbor on Long Island.
Irving H. Picard, the trustee trying to recover money for victims of the swindle, sued Wilpon, brother-in-law and team President Saul Katz and various family members and entities related to Sterling Equities, seeking at least $300 million. Picard claimed they were net winners with their Madoff investments and ignored warnings that Madoff's high returns might be false.
The Wilpons have said they are victims in the scheme.
"We did not know one iota, one thing, of Madoff's fraud," Wilpon said as the Mets started spring training workouts. "We didn't do anything wrong. If anything we trusted a fiend 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 for 35 years and investors for 25 years. Having said that, we will be vindicated."
Wilpon said that to him, vindication means "everybody will know we had nothing to do with it."
"We never benefited any other way than any other victim," Wilpon said.
"We got the same kind of returns. We never got any special returns. It was over a long period of time. We lost over half a billion dollars when he went under, cash money. I personally put in money within three weeks of him going under. I'm not stupid. I wouldn't risk my family's money if I thought he was doing anything wrong."
Fred and Jeff Wilpon, the owner's son and the team's chief operating officer, announced Jan. 28 they were exploring selling up to 25 percent of the franchise because of "uncertainty" caused by the lawsuit. When asked why, if he is innocent, he would see a need to sell a share of the team, Fred Wilpon said it is the "prudent thing to do."
Fred Wilpon repeated Jeff's statements of a day earlier that sale of a controlling interest is "not on the table" and assured fans the team will have the resources to be competitive.
"We have the resources in other businesses," Wilpon said. "Every one of our other businesses are going very well, and this business has to be straightened out, no question about it. Every other business we have I like. This business, I love. I love the New York Mets.
"I've been around here for almost 32 years. This is part of my DNA, so we are going to do everything we can possibly to see that we bring competitive, winning teams here. We changed our whole baseball system. Now they have to bear fruit."
Wilpon said new general manager Sandy Alderson asked for and will be given flexibility with payroll. Several large contracts expire at the end of the season.
"He didn't want a year where he had a payroll here and couldn't get any free agents, and he wanted flexibility over the next five or six years," Wilpon said. "This year is a little different because we have some players that have not performed to their expectations, and we have to carry that or eliminate that. That's up to Sandy. Sandy can do whatever he wants with any player that doesn't make the grade here."
Wilpon said he remains optimistic the Mets have potential to be a playoff contender in their first season under manager Terry Collins.
"We have some very good baseball players," he said. "We have some young players, but just having good players doesn't make a good team. I think Sandy and Terry and their staffs now have to mold the players we have into a good team, and we need a little luck like any team."